When Work Swallows You Up

Where have I been? Why, with the exception of that bit about Arnold mentioning BC in his appearance at Meet the Press last Sunday, have I been so silent? It’s nothing very exciting. I’ve been working, head down, pretty much every day for about 3 weeks. Aside from going to the Vancouver User Experience (VanUE) meeting on Tuesday night — and not even staying for the after party, as I had to get back home and to bed in order to get up before 6 AM the next morning, and I knew that if I didn’t get enough sleep, I’d have gotten sick again—I’ve kept to bed, computer and client site (this past week).

I’m finally looking at a day off tomorrow, and all of the weather forecasts are for a day like today, full of rain. Pam has class for most of the day, so I think I’m going to do something I haven’t done in a long time; I’m going to go to an afternoon matinee. I don’t even know what I’m going to see, but the prospect of popcorn in a nice warm movie theatre taking in a little bit of entertainment on a rainy day sounds awfully good to me.

I’ve checked the local theatre listings, and am not sure what I’m going to see, but I can tell you it won’t be a big, depressing movie or a love story, and it certainly won’t be anything that in any remote way reminds me of Information Architecture, Prototyping or User Testing.

Except for bittorrent, I haven’t watched all that many movies. Why do I resort to bittorrent?  There is no Netflix here in Canada, and I’ve heard many people tell me that the equivalent, Zip.ca  is not very good. There is also no streaming of movies over TiVo here and unlike the American version of the store, there are no streaming movies on Amazon.ca either.  Even the iTunes store doesn’t the variety of movies for Canadian accounts as it does in the American store, so the AppleTV is not as useful either (unless you buy giftcards on the other side of the border and load up an American account). So CRTC or whoever is responsible for our Cinematic Rights Time Warp, don’t you realize that you’ve actually forced me into bittorrenting movies, because there is really no convenient, reasonably-priced alternative? Video rental stores are kind of a pain (and seem so…20th century), and I’m not really interested in buying DVDs (and certainly haven’t popped for a Blu-Ray player).

On the subject is Video Rentals, I couldn’t resist sharing this little nod to Abbott and Costello by Chris Gavaler, that I saw a while ago:

Who’s on First?

By Chris Gavaler

(A CUSTOMER steps up to a video-store counter with a stack of videos.)
CASHIER: Hi. Did you find everything you wanted?
CUSTOMER: (Handing over membership card.) Yes, thanks. (Pause.) When is this one due back?
CASHIER: The day after tomorrow.
CUSTOMER: Yeah, when’s it due back?
CASHIER: The day after tomorrow.
CUSTOMER: Yes. The Day After Tomorrow.
CUSTOMER: Right. When’s it due back?
CASHIER: The day after tomorrow.
CUSTOMER: I mean the movie. The Day After Tomorrow. When is it due?
CASHIER: Oh! I get it. That’s funny. You thought I meant-right, OK. It’s due the day after tomorrow.
CUSTOMER: The Day After Tomorrow is due the day after tomorrow?
CASHIER: Exactly.
CUSTOMER: And Before Sunset?
CASHIER: Anytime before 10.
CUSTOMER: Is it the same as The Day After Tomorrow?
CASHIER: We close the same time every day. Ten o’clock.
CUSTOMER: But what day is the video due?
CASHIER: The Day After Tomorrow?
CUSTOMER: Why are you asking me?
CASHIER: The Day After Tomorrow is due the day after tomorrow.
CUSTOMER: I know, but what about Before Sunset?
CASHIER: Anytime before closing.
CUSTOMER: But what day?
CASHIER: The day after tomorrow.
CUSTOMER: Before Sunset?
CASHIER: You can bring it then if you want to, but we’re open till 10.
CUSTOMER: The movie! Before Sunset. When is Before Sunset due?
CASHIER: Oh! We did it again, didn’t we? Isn’t that just like that … what’s that sketch called? Anyway. Sorry. Before Sunset is due the day after tomorrow.
CUSTOMER: Thank you. (Pause.) Is that the same for the others?
CASHIER: You’re not renting The Others.
CUSTOMER: Why not?
CASHIER: I don’t know. You can if you want to.
CUSTOMER: Well, I would like to rent the others, please.
CASHIER: I’ll check the computer.
CUSTOMER: For what?
CASHIER: The Others.
CUSTOMER: What’s in front of you?
CASHIER: (Looking through stack.) Well, we have The Day After Tomorrow and Before Sunset. Then Seven, After Hours, 48 Hours, Ten, and Before Sunrise. Hey, that’s funny, “before sunrise”-we could have gotten confused about that too, huh?
CUSTOMER: Yeah. Could you ring them up, please?
CASHIER: So you don’t want The Others?
CUSTOMER: I want all of them.
CASHIER: But not The Others?
CUSTOMER: I want everything sitting right there in front of you.
CASHIER: OK, I’ll ring them up. (Pause.) I’m sorry, but your account limits you to six rentals.
CUSTOMER: Oh, OK, I won’t rent Ten.
CASHIER: Excuse me?
CUSTOMER: Get rid of Ten.
CASHIER: You have seven here.
CUSTOMER: I still want to rent Seven.
CASHIER: You’re not allowed to.
CUSTOMER: Why can’t I rent Seven?
CASHIER: Because it’s over the limit.
CUSTOMER: Right, but I want Seven. Get rid of Ten.
CASHIER: (Pause.) That would leave negative three.
CUSTOMER: Excuse me?
CASHIER: You know what? We’ll just let it slide this time.
CUSTOMER: Thank you. (Pause.) Is that one due back the day after tomorrow, too?
CASHIER: Yes, you have 48 hours.
CUSTOMER: But is it due with the others?
CASHIER: You don’t have The Others.
CUSTOMER: What did you just ring up?
CASHIER: You want me to read these to you again?
CUSTOMER: No, just tell me when they’re due.
CASHIER: The day after tomorrow.
CUSTOMER: But what about the others?
CASHIER: You don’t have The Others.
CUSTOMER: Is 48 Hours due the day after tomorrow?
CASHIER: Yes, by 10 o’clock.
CUSTOMER: Is Ten due the day after tomorrow?
CASHIER: Yes, by 10 o’clock.
CUSTOMER: What about After Hours?
CASHIER: There’s a late fee.
CUSTOMER: For what?
CASHIER: If you return after hours.
CUSTOMER: The day after tomorrow?
CASHIER: All of them.
CUSTOMER: So it’s due the day after tomorrow?
CUSTOMER: What about Seven?
CASHIER: You can bring it then if you want to, but we’re open till 10.
CUSTOMER: The movie! The movie! When is the movie Seven due?
CASHIER: (Holding up each video one at a time.) Seven is due at 10 the day after tomorrow. The Day After Tomorrow is due at 10 the day after tomorrow. Before Sunset is due at 10 the day after tomorrow. 48 Hours is due at 10 the day after tomorrow. After Hours is due at 10 the day after tomorrow. And Ten is due at 10 the day after tomorrow
CUSTOMER: Thank you! (Noticing the last video after a long pause.) But what about Before Sunrise?
CASHIER: (Pause.) We’re not open before sunrise.
(CUSTOMER gives up and walks out.)

On the other hand, the movie theatres here are really nice, and I’m looking forward to that.

On Sunday, the sun is supposed to come out, but alas, I will have to be getting back to work, and hopefully won’t be too far behind from having taken a few hours off.

Snowbound with George on Christmas Eve

Our Patio with the most Snow we’ve ever seen on it

Our patio with the most snow we’ve ever seen on it

You always assume that things will turn out as planned, but sometimes they don’t. Pam and I had all but packed our suitcases earlier in the week for a trip to visit with my brother and his family in Seattle, as well as my parents, who were going to be visiting from Baltimore. Mother Nature had other ideas.

The fact that Canada is enjoying the first coast-to-coast ‘White Christmas’ in 40 years is not lost on me, and it is pretty out there. Pam and I had a nice time walking in the first of the snowstorms, and it looks like storm number three, which started last night, will dump nearly as much on us.

The car is not ready to drive on these kinds of roads. We don’t have any snow tires, as we don’t drive that much to begin with and neither of us use it to get to a workplace (unlike the days when I was working in Burnaby for IBM). Snow tires are not usually needed here.

So, here we are, like hibernating bears in our cave, looking out at the snow. Well, not exactly like bears in one key respect: Hibernating bears don’t eat, and I’ve been cooking like crazy. I roasted a chicken stuffed with herbs and lemon (an old Jamie Oliver recipe that I’ve committed to memory), and yesterday did a large pot roast with carrots, parsnips, turnips and potatoes.  This afternoon I baked a tray of oatmeal muffins (after also baking a bunch of cookies earlier in the week). We’ve also got some steaks in the freezer, and since Granville Market is closed for the next 2 days, we’ll probably eat those as well, along with some of other food in our larder, which we stuffed full just in case the weather did get worse.

The other thing I did, which I do nearly every year, was watch Frank Capra’s movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  For me, it transcends movie making to become a piece of art, the same way that some Norman Rockwell illustrations do. I keep finding new details in it, the way you do with any great piece of storytelling or music. There’s always some little motif or passage here or there that after the 10th hearing/viewing you suddenly realize is referred to or echoed in some other place. Capra’s film also has a lot more resonance now, when the news reports from the States earlier in the evening eerily echoed (or presaged?) the talk in the movie of people being foreclosed on their homes because of not being able to pay mortgages, runs on banks and acts of charity. How many people might be, this evening, needing to draw upon charity for the first time in their lives, the way that George Bailey had to?

I noticed that a week or so again, Wendell Jamieson of The New York Times wrote a fascinating reassessment of the film, and actually found it to be essentially a big fat lie, something that he first suspected when he was shown the film at school when he was 15 year’s old:

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.

Holy Cow!  Believe it or not, his opinion of the film’s messages actually gets harsher still:

Many are pulling the movie out of the archives lately because of its prescience on the perils of trusting bankers. I’ve found, after repeated viewings, that the film turns upside down and inside out, and some glaring — and often funny — flaws become apparent. These flaws have somehow deepened my affection for it over the years. Take the extended sequence in which George Bailey (James Stewart), having repeatedly tried and failed to escape Bedford Falls, N.Y., sees what it would be like had he never been born. The bucolic small town is replaced by a smoky, nightclub-filled, boogie-woogie-driven haven for showgirls and gamblers, who spill raucously out into the crowded sidewalks on Christmas Eve. It’s been renamed Pottersville, after the villainous Mr. Potter, Lionel Barrymore’s scheming financier.

Here’s the thing about Pottersville that struck me when I was 15: It looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls — the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If anything, Pottersville captures just the type of excitement George had long been seeking.

Not only is Pottersville cooler and more fun than Bedford Falls, it also would have had a much, much stronger future. Think about it: In one scene George helps bring manufacturing to Bedford Falls. But since the era of “It’s a Wonderful Life” manufacturing in upstate New York has suffered terribly.

On the other hand, Pottersville, with its nightclubs and gambling halls, would almost certainly be in much better financial shape today. It might well be thriving.

I checked my theory with the oft-quoted Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban policy at New York University, and he agreed, pointing out that, of all the upstate counties, the only one that has seen growth in recent years has been Saratoga.

“The reason is that it is a resort, and it has built an economy around that,” he said. “Meanwhile the great industrial cities have declined terrifically. Look at Connecticut: where is the growth? It’s in casinos; they are constantly expanding.”

In New York, Mr. Moss added, Gov. David A. Paterson “is under enormous pressure to allow gambling upstate because of the economic problems.”

“We ease up on our lot of cultural behaviors in a depression,” he said.

What a grim thought: Had George Bailey never been born, the people in his town might very well be better off today.

Well, I’m not sure that the raunchy Vegas-like Pottersville is any better than the Biff Tannen’s alternate Universe town of Hill Valley (which doesn’t get a rename, despite the similar bizzaro treatment) in Back to the Future II.  I’ll bet that a few choice grotesque zooms on the landscape of Pottersville would have horrified the rest of us as much as it did George Bailey rather than thrill him that that his town was less boring with him not in it. Capra perhaps didn’t want to hit us over the head with the message, so it didn’t escape the 15-year old Mr. Jamieson’s cynicism.

Anyway, apt or not, I still find it a great piece of storytelling, even if it teaches us all the wrong things. Jamieson is not alone in his disdain for the film. Besides the fact that the movie was considered a financial flop (too expensive to make, didn’t make back what it cost), Charles Affron on filmreference.com says:

The impetus and structure of It’s a Wonderful Life recall the familiar model of Capra’s pre-war successes. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. In each of these films, the hero represents a civic ideal and is opposed by the forces of corruption. His identity, at some point misperceived, is finally acclaimed by the community at large. The pattern receives perhaps its darkest treatment in It’s a Wonderful Life. The film’s conventions and dramatic conceits are misleading. An idyllic representation of small-town America, a guardian angel named Clarence and a Christmas Eve apotheosis seem to justify the film’s perennial screenings during the holiday season. These are the signs of the ingenuous optimism for which Capra is so often reproached. Yet they function in the same way “happy endings” do in Moliere, where the artifice of perfect resolution is in ironic disproportion to the realities of human nature at the core of the plays.

Maybe I should have just watched Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer instead.

The Sarah Palin Movie

Sometimes truth is far, far scarier than fiction. In the meantime…

Apologies to all for being so out of touch. Will try and catch up later this weekend (Not Saturday, though, as I’ll be at BarCampVancouver08 all day).

Syd Mead and Third Tuesday

A Better Blade Runner and the Designer Behind its World

Before I got started on redesigning this blog, I did get to spend an evening hearing stories from a real designer. Last Wednesday evening’s talk by Syd Mead was a mind-blower.

Before his talk, however, the SIG-CHI Chapter of Vancouver, who were hosting the evening’s event, made some announcements, and then… well, the best description of it might be a ‘happening’.

Here’s a video that someone took of it:

(For those who can’t see the video, essentially, the lights went off and 2 lightweight balls of stretched fabric enclosing multi-coloured lights were tossed over the audience. They were about 7 or 8 feet in diameter, and changed hue every few seconds or so. The crowd happily bounced the balls around the hall, reminding me of those beach balls that get bounced around over the crowds at political conventions. Accompanying the bouncing balls, which were called ‘Zygotes’, courtesy of Tangible Interaction Design was a sort of processed audio, from sensors responding to impacts as the balls bounced off the crowd or the walls and ceiling.

The main event followed: Syd Mead. Mead is the designer of a half a dozen films, including the science fiction classics Tron and Blade Runner. He spoke about his work, using a Quicktime movie to show several decades of illustrations of futuristic cars, buildings, cities and other artifacts of the future that were inside his head and now, perhaps, inside our own as well. There is a DVD of his work as a ‘Visual Futurist’, containing much of the material from his lecture, as well as interviews with others about him and his work. Here’s the trailer, from his web site (check out the high definition version there, it’s well worth seeing at a larger size):

He’s not only a brilliant designer, but he was a good speaker as well, commenting on his work and influences. He showed probably 50-75 examples of his work over the past 50 years or so in various games, cartoons, movies, cars, and industrial design projects. I was surprised to hear that the two artists who influenced him the most were the Baroque painter Caravaggio and 19th/early 20th century illustrator, Maxfield Parrish. As one person interviewed in the trailer put it, Syd Mead is essentially an ’18th Century Man moved to the 20th and 21st Century’. Many others spoke of the ‘reality’ of his vision, that it had gone through much of the evolution and testing related to a product, building, or technology, but entirely in his own mind.

After the talk we saw a screening of the Final Cut (or so it’s now known) of ‘Blade Runner’, a film that . That screening, in and of itself was fascinating as well. The version has none of the film noir, Raymond Chandler-style voice over by Harrison Ford, and there are quite a few scenes either lengthened, added or in one particularly critical case, omitted (I won’t spoil it if you don’t already know). As I was watching it, I kept marveling at the consistency and richness of the visual environment. The only giveaways that Mead’s vision (like Kubrick’s) of the future wasn’t 100% correct was the appearance of the Pan Am logo on a few electronic billboards. Boy, nobody saw that airline as going away, and its logo still looks fine in all of the visualizations of our future.

Third Tuesday

Last night was the monthly meeting of Third Tuesday, a combination presentation and mixer, focusing on (but not entirely limited to) marketing, web 2.0 and the new ‘social media’ that takes place, whenever possible, on the third Tuesday of the month. Last month, Writer and Social Media Evangelist/Consultant, Monica Hamburg introduced many who attended (myself included) to the concept of crowdsourcing. This month, Local Vancouver Technologist, Writer, Raconteur and Miscellanist (that’s how his web site puts it) Darren Barefoot gave an excellent ‘case study’ that explained how his marketing company, Capulet Communications got the attention of the web’s movers and shakers through an online demo of his client’s product. Most surprising detail of the campaign? To invite key people to the online demo (actually, a faux company’s Intranet Wiki), they sent invitations to about 35 of them via snail mail. That’s right, email has produced so much noise and clutter (read: SPAM) that the best way to get to some people is the old fashioned way. It reminded me of an Isaac Asimov short story where a bunch of military scientists realize that the best way to compute some missile trajectories is through some lost ancient techniques, known as ‘multiplication’ and ‘long division’ performed by a soldier with (*gasp!*) a pencil and paper… There was no mention of telegrams or signaling fires, so I’m going to assume that those ‘Employee kits’ sent via Courier were as far back in technology as he was willing to go.

I met up many friends and acquaintances, and am glad to see that the summer season (and mostly sunny skies) has not meant that everyone is heading for the beach, only to reconnect up in the fall. At least, not yet.

Things to Do When You are Between Jobs

It’s been a little over a week before my last day at IBM. I was frankly blown away by the good-bye that I got from coworkers that Friday. We all went out to a Thai feast in Burnaby (and by Thai feast, I mean it just kept coming and coming until we started giggling as each dish was brought to the table; Pad Thai? Sure, Crispy Fish with sauce? Why not!? More Stir-Fried Vegetables? Of course!)

I packed up my desk (I had spent over a week moving books and toys from it to home in half a dozen trips). It was a strange time, with my time alloted to the project over, and work still needing to be done the project I’ve been working on. I hope that I haven’t left too much hanging; Some of it was dependent on details of features that had not been defined yet, but where I had to leave wireframes (which are essentially diagrams of how screens should look and what should be on them and where) partially finished, I tried to make it clear how they could be completed. I said many good-byes to friends and colleagues, and drove home from Burnaby, a little dazed (hey, it was probably all that food at lunch).

On Saturday, we decided to play tourist all over again. We went to the open house of CityTV and took a station tour, meeting most of the crew of Breakfast Television (which I must confess, we’re not regular viewers of, but it was fun, nevertheless). I won a CityTV Umbrella, and we got some Cold Stone Creamery Ice Cream at the end of the tour. I like the station; It’s small and has a lot of personality, and they run Jeopardy each evening (and also carry Reaper, which is a lot of fun and another series filmed here).

Saturday Night, I went to the ticket office at the Orpheum just before the Symphony Concert, and got a last-minute seat for the concert (only $15!). I heard the VSO play one of my favourite pieces, Prokofiev’s Third Symphony. I love it because it’s mostly loud and fast, and almost never lets up. In particular, the third movement is some of the wildest and most vivid music that Prokofiev ever wrote, and much of the drama of the piece is due to the fact that it’s taken from his opera ‘The Flaming Angel’, which chronicles a young nun’s psychotic breakdown and pursuit of a man she believes is an angel, complete with an on-stage exorcism and chase through the streets. Not your usual opera fare, and certainly not your usual Symphony. The orchestra did a fine job, but I suspect that it was too racy for the crowd, who didn’t give it as much of a standing ovation as they did for the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto in the first half. Ah, when will they stop doing this?! Once again, people, when every performance gets a standing ovation, it ceases to mean anything!

The rest of the weekend was a bit quieter, but things picked up again today, with a job interview. I’m not going to write more about that until things settle down either way. Pam also has a lead on a contract, so it’s probable that the free time between engagements for both of us is probably going to come to an end soon.

Tomorrow evening is a special SIGCHI event: the film designer Syd Mead (who was responsible for the revolutionary sets and scenery of Blade Runner) will be in town speaking, followed by a screening of the final cut of the movie.