Sunday, September 2, 2018

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.

Movie Reviews: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Spectre, Minions, Paper Towns

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2: This movie, while not as good as the first two films, is a fine action flick with some unique elements that sets it apart from other modern action movies. One is that it tackles the question of whether the resistance is really a better substitute than the existing tyranny. Another is the fine, strong and useful heroine as the central character.

The acting and directing are good and the movie is put together well. But this movie is only half a movie, and you won't understand most of it without having read the books or seen the first three movies, especially the third. If the third book would not have been split into two movies, the result would have been one much better movie.

As usual, I don't ding a movie just for leaving out parts of the book or for changing elements in the book. However, what was left out of the movie includes some of the central themes the book, and that's a pity. Perhaps the most crucial element left out of the movie is that Katniss was a selfish, spoiled, and lazy heroine who had to train in order to be able to handle herself in the field. Also left out of the movie is the brutal and permanent physical disfigurements she sports by the end of the book; she lives out the remainder of her life with half of her face burned off. J-Law's Katniss suffers no such problems in the movie, despite a scene showing her getting burned. Like in the first movie, the physical and social desperation and psychological trauma are dispensed with in favor of the kind of insensitive and careless video game violence that we come to expect from movies, where no one eats or goes to the bathroom and children can kill hundreds of people or watch hundreds of people die horrible deaths and yet suffer only a brief cry or angry outburst. Pity. Go read the books.

Still, this last movie is worthy and entertaining. We will watch Jennifer's career with great interest.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation: At least this series, like the original Bourne trilogy, but unlike the current superhero movies or the Bond franchise, gives us thrilling action sequences that appear semi-possible and even - occasionally - make you think that they may end with the main characters dead.

This MI, like the last one, is far more entertaining than it should have been. It only crashed for me in the middle during a car chase that had one too many car flips. When the occupant jumps sprightly out of the overturned car onto a motorcycle, my disbelief could no longer be suspended and the movie was ruined for me for about twenty minutes.

The end also seemed rather impossible since the plan required a bunch of people to be exactly at one spot at a specific time with certain hardware and construction that could not possibly have been obtained or constructed, but whatever. Tom Cruise manages to not crowd out everyone else in the movie, at least.

It's all still pretty dumb, but it's entertaining and occasionally clever. The whole plot is a mcguffin for the action sequences. Something about an organization taking over the world.

Spectre: Spectre completes a four part mini-arc for Daniel Craig's James Bond. It is better than the frenetic and unwatchable Quantum, and not quite as stupid as the ridiculously plotted Skyfall. I would rank it below Casino Royale, which was the most straightforward of the films.

While not quite as stupid as Skyfall, please tell me Bond's plan wasn't to walk into the lair, let himself be captured, trussed, and tortured, and, while drills are going into his head, hand his watch to his girlfriend in full view of many bad guys, have her toss the watch so that it blows up exactly the right way to knock out exactly the right people and release his electronic locks, and have all the bad guys miss him from close range, and walk to the unguarded and available helicopter, and have the lair blow up from a couple of bullet shots due to ... actually, I still don't know why it all blew up. It's like the scriptwriters are not even trying anymore. The surveillance capabilities are also presented as ridiculous; I don't put it past governments to have more surveillance than many of us know, but I feel pretty confident that they still can't capture video inside a remote house without at least having placed a video camera in the house first.

And since when can nine different governments cooperate sufficiently to put all of their surveillance into the hands of a British guy? Heck, since when can nine different government organizations in the same country even connect their computers to the same network?

The film tries to introduce an actual romantic interest, as opposed to just a sexual interest, for our hero. And it brings into question whether Bond really wants to continue being a 00. Watchable, but silly. The whole plot is a mcguffin for the action sequences. Something about an organization taking over the world.

Minions: The prequel to Despicable Me, this fluff kids movie contains many funny moments but a pretty bad plot. It is the movie equivalent of a game with a lot of tactics but not a smidgen of strategy.

Despicable Me at least had the bad guy turn into a good guy, which makes sense when the main characters all care for and love each other. This movie dispenses with any kind of character arcs or growth, has only bad guys, and hangs the movie on a quest by three walking babbling banana slugs in search of "the most evil" person to serve. This really makes no sense. The movie ridicules the idea of evil, making "the most despicable" characters into jewel thieves who steal lollipops from kids ... and not much worse. I can think of worse people who work at my bank. And no one ever gets killed or hurt for real.

The animators and director do an incredible job of carrying the movie along with almost no understandable dialog for most of it. The silent movies did it 100 years ago, and apparently these were part of the inspiration for how to achieve it in this movie.

I am uncomfortable with the whole premise, since there is no one to root for, really. If we ignore that, the movie is basically plotless, and the quest is nonsensical. Despite this, in between holding my head at the inappropriateness of the whole endeavor, I laughed out loud quite a few times. Scene after scene is thrown at you with joke after joke, and some of them are quite clever and funny. Something like The LEGO Movie (which didn't suffer from the problems that this movie has). But ... are all the minions boys? Why?

There are so many better movies with better values that I wouldn't buy it for my kids or go out of my way to see it. However cute the banana slugs are.

Paper Towns:  John Green is having a few good years. After The Fault in Our Stars, he comes back with another movie based on one of his books. This one has more normal teenagers, none of whom are heading for imminent death.

Quentin (Nat Wolff) loves a neighbor girl Margo (Cara Delevingne) who has a habit of disappearing. Near the end of high school, she takes him out for a night in which she exacts her revenge on her (now) ex-boyfriend, ex-friends, and a few others and then disappears the next day. He and his friends decide to track her down based on the clues she left as to her whereabouts. Meanwhile, high school is drawing to a close and each of the friends has his or her own stories and concerns about the present or future.

Part high school romcom, part mystery (very small part), and part road trip, I started off not liking the movie because neither Quentin nor Margo initially appeared to be likeable. The disappearance to come was predictable, so I am not spoiling that for you. It is after this that the movie picks up, slowly, slowly the characters evolve and they all become likeable. The minor things in the movie are not always predictable, and even the major ones, while more predictable, are handled well.

A sweet movie with several interesting allegories that I expect (hope) are explored more thoroughly in the book.

The Real Reasons The Force Awakens Fails as a Star Wars Movie

In a word: development.


George Lucas had the vision and ability to unfold scenes that were slices of an epic story, not just connected pieces of one story.

In IV, consider the first scenes with Luke and his uncle and aunt. There are conversations about washing droids, cleaning up, going to town, fixing water harvesters. They talk about dreams and hopes for the future. It's not only the content; it's the pacing ... not only the pacing, it's the flow. The first Luke scenes don't seem like an integral part of one main story - though they are. They seem like the middle of another story and a typical slice of life during that story. Until the first visions of Leia in the hologram, there is no feeling of being part of a "plot". From the hologram until C-3PO mentions that R2 ran away, again there is no feeling of rushing forward in a plot. When exciting things happen, it feels like worlds of different stories are intersecting and getting caught up in each other.

You get the same feeling watching Luke fight the battle ball - it's a slice of a longer time period, making you feel that much time has passed, and Luke has experienced similar events, and many more will come. When Leia is interrogated, same thing. In VII, the interrogation scene we saw was the only one that happened. In VII, every scene felt like it existed only to get to the end of the scene - okay, got it? Let's move on to the next. The process of getting there was clean and executed quickly and antiseptically. The movie needed to tell you this to move the plot forward.

VII gives us just one scene that feels like a slice of time - the scavenge scene and the cleaning of what was scavenged. It lasts about 2 minutes. Even the meeting of Rey and Finn is a sequence of bursts: a fight, then a challenge, then seconds later we're on the run. Then 40 seconds of trying to fix the ship, then a capture. Then a brief exposition by Han, and then another challenge/fight. After the scavenge scene, VII NEVER feels epic. It always feels like a rush to finish a story that is already completely scripted. Even the one scene that should have been filled with wonder - Maz and Rey and the lightsaber - was a rushed scene to get to the point, and then to the end, and then we run off to the next action sequence.

Remember V, with Luke training on Degobah? There was no rush to get to the end of it; it felt like slices of weeks of training. Remember VI, with the walks through the woods? Even in I, II, and III there were (a few) scenes of patience: they may have been terribly acted and poorly scripted, but they were scenes that gave you the sense of epic, long-haul, world-building, not just plot-driving.

That's the first reason.


The second reason is one that others have mentioned: There is nothing new in this movie, other than a female protagonist. Every Star Wars had new ships, new worlds, new creatures, new weapons, new plots, new conflicts, new robots, new costumes, new discoveries, and so on and on. What was new in VII? Takodana looks a lot like the moon from IV, as does its cantina. The Starkiller world has snow, which could have been interesting, but we didn't get to see any of it. The rest was just everything we've already seen.

Again: it was an enjoyable sci-fi movie based on the Star Wars story. The acting was great, there were good lines, it was fun to see a tough, non-sexualized capable heroine. But there was no character development, no epic story, and nothing mystical, at least not until the very last frame. Maybe, maybe, the next movie will give us something more than a very good Star Wars version of a Marvel movie.

Review: Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

When the movie ended, I mulled over how to react. It took a lot of mulling. I could not instantly say "This was great!" I certainly couldn't say "This was bad!" Is it good? Is it great? Is it good only in the context of the Star Wars saga, or good as movie qua movie? Is it just another sci-fi movie with Star Wars nostalgia thrown in to appeal to fans? Or is it a better movie than the usual crop of sci-fi movies?

(For context, I love the original trilogy (RotJ a bit less) and I do not hate the second trilogy. I disliked the enhancements that Lucas made to the original trilogy: they didn't add anything and they really look kind of hokey, but they didn't ruin the movies for me. The second trilogy had some pitifully bad acting, midichlorians were a useless and stupid addition, and Jar Jar was annoying, enough to stress my enjoyment of the first movie. The pod race went on for too long. It was insane that none of the Jedi could see that Annakin was a complete failure as a Jedi (he was so transparently unable to control his emotions that it was criminal to let him be a Jedi), and the final fight between Annakin and Obi Wan ended really stupidly, what with the "high ground" and Obi Wan letting his friend burn to death instead of putting him out of his misery. But I didn't find the taxation and blockade plots boring. I liked Amadalia's spunk, the light saber fights was awesome, and I thought the plot hung together fairly well. Remember that Return of the Jedi had stupid Ewok battle scenes and really bad acting from Carrie Fisher (who acted fine in the first two movies). Something about the second trilogy movies were still appealing to me: that thing that made Star Wars. Which may simply be the well-choreographed lightsaber battles.)

Is it good? Yes. Is it great? Um... maybe?

It is entertaining and plotted well, even if they leave out a number of explanations to fully understand some of the plot details. However, it is missing parts of what made Star Wars unique. The first is development between the action scenes, like Luke talking to his Aunt and Uncle or looking out over the horizon, Han and Leia talking, Han and Luke talking, Obi Wan talking to Luke and training him, etc. This movie has one conversation between humans, and it is flat and forgettable. It has a few slower scenes, and they are great; but more were necessary. Another is character transformation, like Luke learning to take on responsibility, Han turning back to save the rebellion, or Darth Vader, for that matter. There are two transformation in this movie: one is early in the movie and very quick, so it hardly counts, and the other is non-mental and not really a kind that makes you feel invested in it. It just happens, and you're left wondering why. Mostly, what is missing from this movie is mysticism. No one is reaching out to a higher cause or into the unfathomable unknown. Mysticism is nearly, almost, kind of struggling to be there in the movie, but it doesn't happen until the very last frame of the movie.

The nostalgia is there, but not overwhelmingly so. We get some of the old characters on screen for a while, and they don't just stand there looking wistful. I realize that it's hard to strike the right balance. Nevertheless, it is mishandled a bit. The movie tries to copy the original trilogy too much; there really is too much New Hope in it. A planet sized weapon attacked by X-Wings and Tie fighters, plans hidden in a droid, a freakin' alien bar scene. There is even a father son conflict. We did these already, didn't we?

The cinematography is vastly better than the first or second trilogies. Ships and hovercraft move in erratic patterns with oddly tracked shots full of detail as the camera focus swirls around. Ships don't look like models or sterile backdrops; they are fully realized and lifelike. If Lucas was trying to "update" his original trilogy with enhancements to make it look more modern, this movie shows how far he failed in doing so. THIS movie looks incredibly good, so much so, that it feels un-Star Wars, which has always been a bit less complicated and a bit more hokey than the modern sterile sci-fi we are used to.

It was great to see a mad dash to save the girl only to find out that she doesn't need saving. It was nice to see diversity, but really, there is only one black dude in the galaxy, so far (unless Lando is hiding somewhere). BB-8 is really good as a WALL-E type droid, though mostly a substitute for R2-D2 who is awol for much of the movie.

The acting is universally good. Like the original movie, there is nearly no on-screen romantic dialog, a welcome change from the worst elements of episodes II and III. Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are charismatic, and even have a bit of chemistry. On the other hand, Adam Driver as Kylo (the villain), and Oscar Isaac as Poe (a hero) are both uninteresting, flat characters.

Though the movie has plot problems, little character transformation, and little substantive dialog between characters, I still enjoyed the movie. Partly due to nostalgia. Partly that it is a decent action movie, like the better Marvel or Batman movies. Party because there are lightsabers. And partly due to the charisma of Harrison Ford, Daisy, and John. As for the latter two, we will watch your careers with great interest.

Spoilers, questions, and complaints ahead.



What happened to the clones? Since when did stormtroopers come from recruits?

Really, the Millennium Falcon works that well after not flying for a long time? And Han lost it? And Han just happened to be in the one place in space where he could drag it on board?

It took Han a long time to make the jump to hyperspace in IV. Now you're telling me it can be done by someone unfamiliar with the ship from a standing start? Speaking of traveling in hyperspace, that must be moving about a million times the speed of light, which I'm fine with. I'm not fine with relying on a human saying "now" to know when to cut the hyperdrive so that the ship lands a couple of miles above a planet instead of inside the planet: that's what computers are for. And speaking of that shield, what use is a shield that protects against things flying sub-light speed, but not above light speed? Why can't the resistance just fill a ship with bombs and send it straight into the target at above light speed? It would make a pretty explosion, I think.

Good thing the big monster didn't eat Finn right away like it did for all of the other, less important characters, giving Rey time to save him. Rey's plan was to look at security cameras and chop off the monster's limbs with a blast door? And that was the best plan?

Luke's lightsaber was just sitting in some bar basement in an unlocked box? Really? Didn't Luke's original lightsaber (the one Obi Wan gave him that was once Annakin's) fall from Cloud City on Bespin?

Rey never used a blaster before, but shoots better than people who have trained with blasters their whole life. And unless Finn is a Jedi secretly, how does he use a lightsaber competently after first picking one up against a Jedi who has trained to use it his whole life? Didn't Luke have to train a long time to use a lightsaber?

How did that random stormtrooper happen to have this ... thing that protects against lightsabers? If it's not standard issue, were they expecting a lightsaber attack? If it is, why doesn't everyone have them? Where did it come from?

I was not thrilled to see what essentially amounted to a rape scene (as Kylo entered, or tried to enter, Rey's mind repeatedly to take information out of it).

The screenwriter tried to give Kylo conflict - struggling between the light and dark sides of the force, but it was not well conveyed, neither in the script nor by the actor. As a result, what was going to happen in the scene where Han confronts Kylo was telegraphed from the moment he stepped onto the bridge. Maybe it will surprise some viewers, but it was obvious to me what was going to happen, especially when Kylo took out his lightsaber. A defter directorial hand was needed here.

How come Rey is able to take up the force so easily, with no training? Weren't Luke and Leia the last hopes? Why was Leia never trained in the force?

How come Finn said he was a janitor, when he was clearly out on a mission at  the beginning of the movie?

Why are there no guards at the doors to the bases? Why was that bad guy so willing to shut off the field without a struggle?

It didn't seem necessary for Finn to die; especially with him being the only black guy in the universe; it smacks a bit too much like a trope (the black guy always dies). It wasn't necessary when they already had killed off a main character. I suppose it's possible that Finn isn't dead, but that wouldn't make sense considering the advanced medical stuff they have around him (which should detect any semblance of life).

The wordless ending with no resolution was not entirely satisfying, even though they and we know that we're going to go out and see the next movie. Also, shouldn't she be offering Luke the saber hilt first? I'm kind of pissed that Luke would let so much death and destruction go on while he runs away from some personal failure; who does he think he is, Yoda?

Friday, August 24, 2018

Books vs Movies 1/2: Books I Read After Seeing the Movie

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Movie: One of those movies that uses it's actors like juggling balls rather then for their talents and performances. Filled with a self-indulgent hyper-kinetic freneticism that is supposed to overawe but only makes me feel as empty as I do after watching forty minutes of Marvel movie fighting. I couldn't take more than a half hour of it.

The movie contains only the barest outline of the contents of the book (which is well over 700 dense pages).

Book: A classic, beautifully written, deeply insightful, and filled with a rich panoply of characters and events. I just don't like it. Why? Because it's filled with despair , depression, and the oppression of a soulless bureaucracy. I need someone to root for in my media, and there are no redeemable characters in the book. Anna starts out likeable enough, but soon becomes single-mindedly fixated on her adultery and filled with despair. Levin is kind of interesting as he works out the basics of communism, but hardly someone to identify with. Kitty is vacuous during the first half of the book, but she gains a few morals by the middle; unfortunately, her character just isn't that interesting.

Arrival, Ted Chiang

Movie: Quiet but phenomenal: intelligent, suspenseful, beautifully acted, scripted, and directed, and thoroughly engaging. It was only an hour after the movie ended that I figured out exactly what had been going on. One of my favorite movies of its year.

Book: A very nice short story, written in an economical style, well-plotted and thoughtful. To be honest,  the movie is so good that it makes reading the story kind of superfluous. The movie contains everything in the original story (with a few irrelevant changes) and more.

Atonement, Ian McEwan

Movie: A beautiful movie with some haunting cinematography and outstanding acting. Some of the scenes and characters are haunting, and it contains some of my favorite actors. The story is clean and harsh.

Book: Very well-written, the movie is fairly close to the book. Both were enjoyable.

Bridget Jones' Diary, Helen Fielding

Movie: A very well-made chick-flick romcom that is a modern remake of Pride and Prejudice. A defining role for the fetching, sarcastic, and sympathetic Renee Zellweger. Actually a lot of fun, although kind of devolves a bit at the end as romcoms do.

Book: Slightly better than the movie, with a sharper satirical voice. The movie pretty much follows the book, but the book has its own distinctive voice.

The Chosen, Chaim Potok

Movie: A classic coming of age movie set in two Jewish 1940s Brooklyns that intersect. Contains some lessons in overcoming prejudices, making friends, and dealing with the heavy roles placed on us by society and family.

Book: As I recall, the movie is pretty much a reflection of the book, but the book is longer and deeper. Honestly, it's been a long while since I read it.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Movie: An iconic live-action Disney musical and performance by Dick Van Dyke. Very reminiscent of his overacting and production, like Mary Poppins. Fun in a nostalgic kind of way.

Book: Holds up better than the movie It is aimed at young readers and has good pictures and a simple clean writing style. The movie basically follows the book but changes several story elements to make it more child-friendly.

E.T. The Extraterrestrial, William Kotzwinkle

Movie: A classic Spielberg movie, with an absent father, cute kids, realistic dialogue that can veer from maudlin to annoying, and an incredible sense of wonder and magic. Beautiful cinematography and direction.

Book: A novelization of the movie, and I remember being thoroughly underwhelmed. The book adds some inner dialogue to the book that somehow managed to destroy the magic of the story.

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

Movie: A great movie, one of the three major films starring James Dean. Powerfully shot and directed, with iconic performances.

Book: A powerhouse classic novel, one of the best American novels ever written. It is large, wide and epic, as well as thought-provoking with biblical allusions, well-drawn out characters, and interesting moral questions. The movie only superficially covers about the last quarter of the book.

The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

Movie: A great movie; could be considered a chick-flick but it is so much more, with sweeping characters caught in a global war and a series of interesting character dynamics and coincidences. Beautifully shot and acted, and very engaging.

Book: The movie follows the book fairly closely, and may be slightly better, but the book is also great. A very good read.

Escape to Witch Mountain, Alexander, H. Key

Movie: I loved this as a kid. It's kind of dated and a bit hokey, but still pretty fun to watch.

Book: Aimed at a rather young audience, so very easy and quick to read. The movie and book are nearly identical.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J. K. Rowling

Movie: An interesting movie, more low key than the Harry Potter movies. Two thirds of its time is spent on the pastoral main character and his doings and only in the last third do the hinted-at dark elements come to the fore. In this way, it is actually a closer representation of Rowling's writing style than the HP movies.

The main character is not a fighter, but a nurturer, which is quite an unusual choice for a movie that seems, superficially, to be more about action. It was well shot, had quirky characters, but was perhaps a bit slow. And then there was a battle sequence which went on too long, or at least with too much monotony. But it was enjoyable, all the same.

Book: Has nothing to do with the movie; it is a small fictional encyclopedia, which will eventually be written by the main character of the movie. You can skip it.

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

Movie: Cute but disappointing. The characters were nice, the message was upbeat, but it was mostly predictable. The movie had a particularly bad misstep by setting a romantic scene in The Anne Frank House (ugh) and one particularly good scene near the end in a car. The rest was fine, occasionally charming, but too tame and pedestrian.

Book: The movie very closely follows the book. The book is slightly better, but has basically the same flaws.

Freaky Friday, Mary Rodgers

Movie: Here I refer to the original movie with Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster, I suspect that it is now pretty hokey, like many made for TV Disney films, but may still have some charm. I remember find it very funny and entertaining when I was a kid. The remake with Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan was watchable but often over-produced and dumbed down. I think I might try to find the original again.

Book: Has several major differences from the movie, as I recall, as it follows almost entirely the point of view of the daughter in the mother's body. I don't remember it, although I remember my brother owning a copy. It was aimed at young teens.

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Movie: I saw this in high school and wasn't ready for it. It's pretty grim. Well made, but not really entertaining.

Book: A well written classic, and far more expansive than the movie. The movie covers most of the book, but skips the first few and last few chapters and glosses over a lot of the middle. The book is also grim, but the good writing brings the characters to life, and it is more engaging.

Heaven Can Wait, Leonore Fleischer

Movie: Another somewhat dated movie (1978). While the special effects are hokey and the timing and performances of the actors are sometimes a bit off, it still holds up pretty well. I really enjoyed it when I was young.

Book: Actually, the movie is based on the 1941 play Here Comes Mr. Jordan by Henry Segall. This is the novelization of the above version of the movie. It wasn't that bad, just a straightforward telling of what you see on the screen. Not worth seeking out.

The Hours, Michael Cunningham

Movie: A beautiful, thoughtful movie about three women in three different realities, connected by visual clues and emotional eddies. Perhaps a bit heavy handed on cinematic allusions, the directing and production are nevertheless solid, as are the magnificent performances by several incredibly talented actors. Emotional and hopeful.

Book: Was a disappointment after seeing the movie. It's not a bad book, but it is pedestrian in comparison. The movie essentially follows the book, with some cinematic licenses.

The Hunger Games (1), Suzanne Collins

Movie: I loved this movie so much that I immediately bought the entire trilogy of books knowing nothing about it. The performances are fantastic and the story and execution is beautiful. It's a great movie. Even so, the movie glossed over certain side themes and characters. It tried to both denounce the games while at the same time glorify them on screen, which didn't really make sense.

Book: The book is phenomenal, an instant classic, beautifully written with evocative characters and settings. The book presents the correct balance of despair and terror that the movie glosses over.

The second and third books are just as good or even better, while the subsequent movies got progressively worse.

John Carter (A Princess of Mars), Edgar Rice Burroughs

Movie: Roundly condemned for being boring, disjointed, and derivative, it was a huge box office bomb. I liked it. It was quirky and even daring in certain instances, and the plot, while somewhat far-fetched, was easy enough to follow. The characters and plot were shallow, but not boring.

Book: From 1912, the book is pre-golden age of science fiction, which explains its bizarre far-fetched plot. It is a decent read. The movie follows the book fairly closely, but expands on the text and plays with the start and end in order to provide a more compelling explanation of how the protagonist travels to Mars. Neither book nor movie are amazing, but they are both entertaining enough.

Julie and Julia, Julie Powell

Movie: A fun Nora Ephron movie about blogging, New York City, marriage, and cooking. Amy Adams is cute as Julie the blogger who decides to cook through Julia Childs' fat-laced Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Meryl Streep is delightful (of course) as a young Child as she first learns to cook. The fact that, in present time, Child acknowledges Julie only to dismiss what she does as a stunt is disconcerting but somewhat telling.

Book: The movie is actually based on Powell's book Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously as well as an autobiography by Child from the same year. Powell's book corresponds to the Julie scenes in the movie, and is written well enough. I can't really recommend the book: it's okay, but the author has some questionable morals.

Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton

Movie: An iconic, fantastic Spielberg movie that still works so well that you don't even mind the just ever-so-slightly off effects (except for when the girl says "It's a UNIX system!" which elicits a groan of pain from me every time). Has the usual daddy issues and cute, precocious children. Wonderful, magical film, with a great cast especially Goldblum), superb action and humor, and even a timeless message.

Book: The movie pretty much follows the book, which is also excellent. The book leaves out some of the great lines from the movie, but goes deeper into the characters, science, terrain, and so forth, and has a slightly darker more ominous tone, especially the ending.

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

Movie: A stunning work of cinematography, with a good story and good acting. This was one of my favorite movies of its year.

Book: The movie pretty much follows the book, but the movie is more fun to experience.

Me Before You, JoJo Moyes

Movie: Shallow and predictable. Its assets are the impossibly perky Emilia Clarke as Lou and the handsome and winning Sam Claffin as the wealthy but paralyzed Will. Everything else were just devices to have the main characters interact, trade barbs and glances, and share hearts. During the movie, when it appeared to be leading to a tragic ending, the realization of its inevitability evoked some emotion out of me, but that was its only real good point. When it ended I suspected that the book would be better.

Book: I was happily surprised to discover that the book is not only better, but it is excellent, well worth the read. The book goes deep into the poverty and struggles of Lou and her family, the dynamics of Will's parents and sister, the ethics of suicide and assisted suicide, and the lives and struggles of quadriplegics. The book takes its time and is well researched. Even Lou's boyfriend is more interesting in the book: in the movie he is one dimensional and you know he will be kicked to the curb a few seconds after he shows up on screen; in the book, he is still an ass but more well-rounded and sympathetic. I recommend the book.

After you read the book, you can enjoy the movie more, because you now know the back stories of the characters that were glossed over by the movie. Or you may also be even more disappointed in the movie for cutting the heart out of the book.

Message in a Bottle, Nicolas Sparks

Movie: Not a bad chick flick, it is solid but also not particularly daring. Paul Newman steals all of the scenes he is in.

Book: It's Nicholas Sparks: the plot is simple and fun, the writing is good enough to tell the story and not much more. The movie pretty much follows the book.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky

Movie: A fabulous movie about a strange teen and his mysterious problems and the odd friends he makes in high school The movie is beautifully scripted with several concurrent themes running through it, some serious and some light, and they all work together Great performances and music, too. Inspired me to read the book as soon as possible.

Book: Also great, a longer and more complex version of the movie. The movie managed to portray most of the book's major plot elements, but the book makes them more gripping with an attention to details and events more fully realized. Worth the read.

Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Bryan Lee O'Malley

Movie: A fun, wacky and engaging movie that inspired me to read the comic series as soon as possible. The movie is so random in some ways, and yet it cohesively uses video-game semiotics to metaphorically convey the main character's reality, while the main plot is its own metaphor about making a relationship work while dealing with the ghosts of past relationships. I loved it.

Book: My joy of the movie was lessened after reading the powerhouse that is the graphic novel series. Scott Pilgrim the six part comic series is incredible and incredibly deep, funny, original, cute, cool, and so much fun. The movie more or less covers book 1, some of book 2, parts of book 3, a teeny bit of book 4 and 5, and then nearly entirely rewrites book 6. The plot ends in a totally different place, and so much of the important story, character development, metaphors, depth, and life lessons from the last four books are absent from the movie. The movie is just a shadow of the incredible book series. I still enjoy the movie, but do read the series.

The Shipping News, Annie Proulx

Movie: An adult story set in New England mostly Maine) about loneliness and mediocrity, the movie is pretty good, although it doesn't really have a lot to say. The main characters are not all that sympathetic, but its a decent watch.

Book: A more fleshed out and sympathetic portrayal of the story, the main character transforms and grows by the end of the book. It is written solidly and a good read. Scenes that were flat in the movie are richer in the book since we can see can experience the characters' inner struggles. I enjoyed it more than the movie (and that feeling is only exacerbated by knowing what we now know about Kevin Spacey).

Slumdog Millionaire (Q and A), Vikas Swarup

Movie: A highly-praised movie, and well deserved. It manages to be funny and yet still explore some of the dark areas of Indian poverty, child abuse, and crime. Great acting and sets, and an engaging plot.

Book: Definitely better than the movie, well written and more satisfying. The book contains background information, relationships, and even entire scenes that are skipped over by the movie, so that many of the characters and their motivations make more sense. Not a long book, and worth the read.

Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson

Movie: The movie that introduced me to Kristen Stewart, it is a neat, quiet, but powerful little teen drama about an event that is hard to speak about. It is very well done, almost a classic teen movie.

Book: The movie essentially follows the book. It is something like two different people telling the same story - all of the plot elements are there, but the coloring and which parts are given weight is slightly different in each telling. A very good teen read.

Star Wars, George Lucas (Alan Dean Foster)

Movie: Not much to say here, I think.

Book: A novelization of the movie, adding only a bit of interior dialogue. It was nothing special. Foster went on to write the first sequel to Star Wars - Splinter of the Mind's Eye - even before The Empire Strikes Back came out. As a result, that book doesn't entirely adhere to the SW universe; it was a pretty good book, however.

Superman III, William Kotzwinkle

Movie: Superman was a little soporific, but also iconic in many ways. Superman II was pretty great; from today's perspective, its timing, some effects, and some of the dialogue is off, but it's still a good watch. Superman III tried to be a comedy with Richard Pryor, but it wasn't funny. It was pretty tiresome to watch, and its computer elements were as ridiculous as they come in movies. Some scenes with Clark Kent fighting his evil instantiation were okay.

Book: Like E.T.'s novelization, this book was pretty awful, robbing what little interest the movie held with poor cutesy prose. I hardly remember anything from it except that I didn't like it.

The Sword in the Stone, T. H. White

Movie: One of the minor Disney efforts, it's a barrage of meaningless, psychedelic, and silly visuals and jokes. The move has only passing reference to the book's form, missing nearly all of the rich descriptions, all of its important concepts, and all but the last, major plot point.

Book: The movie glosses over the first book of a five book series on the Arthurian legends. The first four are collected under the title The Once and Future King. The first book, rather like The Hobbit, is the juvenile entry of the series; the other four are more for adults. The entire series is a must read, an absolute classic of English literature, on par with The Lord of the Rings. Yes, it's that good.

The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

Movie: Certain movies, like this one, just work, and you can tell that from the first ten minutes. This is a lovely romance movie, which uses its science fiction element as an allegory (as all good works of science fiction do). Heart-warming and captivating, but very much an emotional roller coaster. It falters a bit when it veers into trying to explain things scientifically, and then certain story elements aren't exactly explained well (like how their time traveling daughter can possibly survive, at a very young age, the same kinds of experiences that the protagonist went through as an adult).

Book: Like Perks of Being a Wallflower, the movie is a condensed version of the book. The book gives a richer tapestry of the events, including expanded scenes and an ending that are more satisfying than the movie. A beautiful read, good to read together with a loved one.

Twilight, Stephanie Meyer

Movie: Not bad, although it also somewhat shallow. Like The Time Traveler's Wife, the central fantasy is a metaphor about sexual tension between an older boy and a minor girl, but it is also an action movie. It doesn't quite successfully juggle both elements, and Kristen Stewart doesn't give us much character depth, but that is more the fault of the screenwriter and director than hers. The movie is aimed at tween girls, and they like it, so that's that.

Book: Somewhat better than the movie, still aimed at tween and teen girls. Again, it's not bad, and certainly more original than the hundreds of similar books that it inspired and that came after.

The Wizard of Oz, Frank L. Baum

Movie: A wonderful movie that, amazingly, hasn't lost its charm. Full of great moments, great quotes, and great characters, and some very funny and scary moments you always seem to forget.

Book: Called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I was never able to get into it. The author's writing is not as good as the author's imagination. Dorothy is someone who things happen to, rather then someone who does things. The movie really makes the story shine.

Wonder, R.J. Palacio

Movie: I anticipated this being a boring movie with a straightforward story about a disfigured boy who goes to school, is bullied, makes a false friend and then a true friend, finally wins over the school, etc, blah blah. Actually, half of the book is about that, but the other half is told from the point of view of others in his life, and those stories are more interesting. Some of these side stories don't even revolve around the boy, which make the whole thing a richer experience. So I enjoyed the movie, although the main plot was somewhat shallow. I anticipated that the book would contain things left out of the movie.

Book: But the movie nearly exactly follows the book, even the structure of telling stories from the perspectives of the different characters. The book and the movie are essentially the same, so, while the book was also fairly enjoyable, it was not much more than that.

Movie Reviews: Sullly, In Your Eyes, Wild, Palto Alto, Genius

See all of my movie reviews.

Sully: This is a short movie, coming in at only an hour and a half. There's not much to it. It's a short review of the take off and crash landing into the Hudson river of a US Airways flight in 2009, where everyone survived and pilot became known as a hero. The review includes a few very brief character stories of some people on the flight (I don't know if these are fictionalized) and very, very brief cameos from unnamed air traffic controllers, policemen on boats, and captain Sullivan's girlfriend (or maybe wife). It's also a very short review of the insurance investigation into the decision to crash the plane instead of try to make it to a nearby airport. This is split into two parts, with the evidence against the pilot presented at the beginning of the movie, the flight in the middle, and the resolution of the investigation wrapping up the movie.

It's not unenjoyable, but there's not much there. Tom Hanks acts well, but he only has two emotions to act: worried and tired. More and more of his recent roles have been stressing those emotions; what happened to all of the other ones, like crazy, fanatic, enthusiastic, challenged, etc etc? Almost no personality comes through in his portrayal. Aaron Eckhart as the co-pilot delivers a more lively character to the screen, but it's all so short; as short as it is, a whole lot of Sully brooding could have been removed, and then it would make a decent hour-long made-for-TV movie. Or they could have given it more characters and more life and made into a real movie.

In Your Eyes: This is my third movie starring Zoe Kazan (see my reviews for Ruby Sparks and What If?). Ruby Sparks earned a strong meh on my review scale - lightweight but good supporting characters - while What If earned a very weak meh - unexceptional but at least not annoying. This movie is a pretty middle meh.

The idea is intriguing: two people have never met, but they have been able, sometimes, to feel some of the things that the other feels and one day begin speaking telepathically. Rebecca (Zoe) is a housewife in New Hampshire married to a belittling ass of a doctor husband. Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) is a an ex-con trying to go straight and hold down a menial job, hounded by his parole officer and two of his con-friends who - no surprise - want him to do just one more job. Assorted irrelevant others abound; possibly the only other one worth mentioning is Rebecca's idiot busybody "friend" who after seeing Rebecca talking out loud to no one (she has to speak out loud to talk telepathically to Dylan) tells Rebecca's husband that Rebecca is having an affair. Honestly, I didn't see that one coming, and it didn't make any sense.

Rebecca is not happy with her husband but feels she owes him for having been there for her in trying times. She feels she is cheating on him by talking - intimately - with Dylan. Meanwhile, Dylan is basically trying to woo Rebecca and letting her ruin his life: his talking out loud to her gets him kicked off his job and distracted at times that he should be focusing.

The science is not explained, which is fine, since the whole thing is allegorical. However, after having been spoiled by the likes of The Time Traveler's Wife and The Age of Adeline, I was hoping for a lot more.

For example, the first scene of "discovery", where they begin to speak to each other, was handled all wrong - it wasn't handled very badly, but it wasn't handled the way it should have been. Instead of great, it was meh. They spent a few moments thinking they're crazy, and then they accept that the voice in their head is someone real and they start having a conversation. No no no no no. Why couldn't one of them really break down? Think that the other one is a figment of their imagination? Wonder why this is happening to them? Go to a psychologist? Anything other than this weak Nicholas Sparks placid acceptance.

And why, for the love of God, did they spend the entire movie communicating and not once pick up a telephone to actually talk to the other person? Or look up anything about the other person online? Or go see the other one (well, Rebecca could have, at least; Dylan wasn't allowed to leave the state)? She had plenty of time and resources to do it.

The fact that the two leads can interest the viewer throughout the movie without ever being in the same room is fine, but it could have been so much better. They each can see out through the others' eyes; the movie shows us this  and then fails to use it to any good effect. Instead of real drama, cinema, and intrigue, we get a meet cute and then a standard boilerplate romance story where the characters have to kick out their various unsuitables and eventually meet. Meh. And the ending was pretty stupid.

Wild: This is an adaptation of a book about a woman who responded to personal tragedy by wrecking her life - sleeping around outside of her marriage and shooting heroine. When she finally hit a bottom, which included a divorce, she changed her name to Cheryl Strayed and decided to hike a west coast trail for 1000 miles, not necessarily to undo her damage or find redemption, but just to center and accept herself and be able to start again. As a single white female with no previous hiking experience, she encounters situations and people that are colorful, strenuous, helpful, and frightening.

The movie is mostly Reese Witherspoon, and she does a fantastic job. Like Sandra Bullock, she has done a lot of movies where she played basically the same character. And, like Sandra Bullock, she is now showing the world that she can do much more. All of the supporting actors and actresses are great, and so is the cinematography. The movie is built around a series of flashbacks that pop up for a second at a time, intentionally jumbled, in order to simulate the jumbled reminiscences of the main character. I didn't read the book, but I suspect that the device works better in the book than in the movie; it's adequately done, but somewhat distracting.

The movie makes few judgments. The character is not necessary a good girl gone bad, and she is not necessarily any better by the end. So the movie is more like a series of connected scenes hung around a theme. I liked it a lot, but the lack of anything real to hang onto somehow left me a little disconnected (Boyhood did essentially the same thing, but there were some definite character arcs in it). Worth watching at least once.

Palo Alto: A film directed by Gia Coppola, adapted from some of the stories in a book of stores by James Franco. This is a movie of disconnected scenes and disconnected youth, some of whom are unlikable, and some of whom are unbelievable. Apparently every girl in high school has sex, to the point that the one girl who doesn't is teased by everyone else. And one girl will go down on essentially anyone.

It is all very atmospheric, shot with hazy lenses (or it just felt that way). Even the daytime shots feel like night. No one is sympathetic, which left me cold. Style-wise it feels like her aunt Sophia Coppola's first film, The Virgin Suicides, but without a plot or any sympathy. I wasn't a big fan of Suicides; I thought it was okay. This film is shot well, the director captures a mood of some kind, and gets decent performances from her young cast, but it is a tale of sound an fury, signifying nothing.

Genius: The story of Tom Wolfe, the grandfather of the beatniks (predating them by 30 years) who wrote with both genius and logorrhea, and his editor Maxwell Perkins, who brought to the world Tom's first two books. Maxwell was also the man who brought Hemingway and Fitzgerald to print. Editing the vast output of Tom's writing into sensible and digestible form was a difficult task. Apparently he did a better job than the screenwriter of this film. Like Tom's original writings, the film goes on senselessly repeating itself until you want to chuck the whole thing in the garbage.

Which is a shame. At 100 minutes, Jude Law's Tom's bloviating is tiresome. At around 60 minutes, this would have been a fascinating and captivating picture. Alternately, the extra 40 minutes could have contained more Hemingway, more Fitzgerald, or especially more of Nicole Kidman's incredible portrayal of Aline Bernstein, Tom's lover, supporter, and patron, who was also a writer and who was married to someone else at the time. Her story, other than her relation to Tom, is entirely absent from the movie.

Great directing, acting, cinematography, costumes, and so on. Some of the screenplay is fine; but, like its subject, a better editor was needed.

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

Here is my presentation at Megacomm February 2018, 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 websites 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 abler 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.

Monday, August 20, 2018

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.

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.

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.