Feb 10, 2013

Because they can...

Vincent Flanders, in his most excellent Websites That Suck, says that the worst reason to use a feature in a web design is "because you can." This is how we end up with flashing red-alternating-with-blue text, an instant headache for most of us and possibly capable of inducing a seizure in a significant minority, and a host of other sensory and cognitive insults.

Check out Flanders' withering scorn as per "Mystery Meat Navigation." You'll know you've seen it as soon as you read the description. Oh, all right, it's the mysterious navigational buttons disguised as teddy bears, or toy locomotives, or jagged edges, or anything except what custom tells us a button should look like. A lot like the "mystery meat" we used to get at school lunch counters, right?

It seems to me that Microsoft is horribly guilty of "because we can" when it comes to new versions of Windows, and Office, and God knows what else. I thought Win 95 replacing v. 3.1 was a really good idea, and I still do. Win 98 required a bit of a learning curve but was surely needed. Millennium? Widely regarded as a dud, a true step backward. Fortunately it was gone too quickly for me to encounter it much directly. Win XP, especially XP Pro, was one I really liked and still like. A lot. And its successor, Vista, was another one widely dismissed. I didn't care why but I was glad to stick with XP Pro as long as I could.

Next came Windows 7. Let's pause and talk about the successive learning curves. Why did Redmond (insider-ish slang for Microsquish, after the Washington city where it is headquartered - Wikipedia calls it a metonym - I  just learned something) find it necessary to abandon the start button and resulting menus, after the angst we invested in learning it in the first place? Come to think of it, why did Win XP force a choice between two versions of the dang Start button menu? Every time a willing-to-help co-worker landed at another desk and found a different Start menu than the one they expected, it was like a Redmond Raspberry, a thumb to the nose for daring to invade the sacred domain of techies. Sheesh...

There are a bunch of other changes and we could ask, why? Because they could, is the best I can come up with.

A tech-savvy friend says a pattern is well-known that every other Windows release was good and every other one bad. This forced us faith-in-the-latest types to keep moving forward until at some point we became no-faith-in-pointless-changes acolytes, and clung to older versions.

The same is true of Office. How many people change their default Style in Word 2007 to the 2003 Style, raise your hands? That's what I thought. When you finally found out how to fix the supremely irritating 2007 default of Enter producing a double-space rather than a single line break, you finally found out how to fix it, probably by Google search rather than the opaque resident Help file, and gained brownie points by gleefully sharing the method with friends and co-workers.

I finally bit the bullet and replaced my trusty, but five-year-old, Win XP Pro machine. I beat the introduction of Windows 8 by a couple of weeks so I got Windows 7, which at least was a devil I knew. My wife's PC, bought at the same time as my old one, wasn't so lucky. The hard drive failed the very day before Wind 8 was to come out. I knew this and rushed to the store where I got an "open box" deal on a Win 7 machine, and felt awfully lucky. Best Buy and Office Depot were to have no Win 7 PC's for sale the following day.

Win 8, by the way, is apparently as rough on the uninitiated as reported when it came out. I deduce this by the slew of machines now being offered online with Win 7 instead of 8. Shopping today for an HP, I even found a new machine capable of booting to Win 7 or XP.

It came with pre-installed Office 2010 but I didn't go for it. I had my full retail disc for Office 2007 and installed it instead.

Today while shopping (for a friend) I was at my favorite software site and found something interesting One reason I love this site is they sell "legacy" versions as well as the latest and supposedly greatest. Turns out Office 2007 is about $100 more than Office 2010. Maybe it's that American tradition, supply and demand, at work.

I could talk about the way Adobe poop-canned Cool Edit Pro after they bought it from Syntrillium, replacing it with Adobe Audition at $100 more, and an even pricier audio editor as part of a big old suite. Worst part was the Audition normalizer was inferior to the one in Cool Edit. I had lost my installer for Cool Edit with the old PC so I sprang for Audition, but eventually abandoned it for a copy of Cool Edit I found online for $15. I won't go into the way software companies (MS and Adobe are not the only ones, of course) gobble up competition, shut them down, and replace them with more expensive but less functional, albeit shinier, versions. Nope. Not me. Won't go there.

Because they can. But they shouldn't. And we shouldn't go along. Doncha think?

Nov 24, 2012

What is real?

"Movies that fool us into confusing illusion with reality." Is this a movie genre? It should be.

Lots of these are from books. I might have thought The Wizard of Oz was an early example but then I think of Alice in Wonderland from the previous century. I bet the Greeks and Romans had their versions, for that matter. But I want to talk about the modern weird stuff.

Fight Club. Sure had me fooled, and the main character was no better off. Reading the book first was good for me, and I still enjoyed the movie, maybe more so.

Altered States. Woof. Unfortunately my memory is more attuned to impressions than to plot but the overwhelming thing I took away from this was how William Hurt's wowzer of a performance scared the bejeezus out of me. Isolation tanks? No thank you, not for me.

Videodrome. A strange TV program seems to suck viewers into an alternate universe or some such. The first viewing really grabbed me but a second try many years later was disappointing. The idea that watching too much tube can rot your brain could be a subgenre. To wit, the little girl who disappears into TV land in Poltergeist, and the part of Twilight Zone, the Movie, in which a character is unable to escape from a horrific TV cartoon. Come to think of it, this was drawn from the original TV series, which was way before Videodrome. Maybe the writer was a Rod Serling fan.

Fringe. This is a TV show, not a movie, but since a Fringe marathon I've been watching the past two days on the Science Channel is what prompted this, my first post in over a year, it gets a mention. There's lots of stuff about dream states, isolation tanks, brain waves and other "fringe science." One episode is about an embittered computer programmer. He invents a program that invades computers via the Internet, putting up hyonotic images as a virtual hand slowly proceeds from the screen. The hand suddenly clamps down on the viewer's head, liquefying the brain. Ewww...

The Matrix. This one really fooled me. If you've not seen it, no spoiler here. I admired the storytelling and the advanced computer graphics.

The Sixth Sense. Another one I never saw coming, but I bet a lot of people did. Director M. Night Shyamalan seems to like exploring this terrain. Check out his Unbreakable, with Samuel L. Jackson as a dude with a secret agenda it's hard to see coming..

Jacob's Ladder. Tim Robbins wonders if he might be doomed to permanent flashbacks from drugs administered during his tour in Vietnam. Is anything what it seems? A lot less well-known but right up there with Altered States.

Perception. Another TV show, features a genius schizophrenic who intentionally avoids his meds, using his hallucinations to help an FBI agent solve crimes. The agent has a monster crush on the crazy guy, who was once her college professor. Actually this is another sub-genre I'll call "square peg genius finds way to fit round hole and solve crimes." Take The Mentalist - a reformed con man, formerly a psychic, helps a very attractive FBI agent solve crimes. Coincendentally, she also has a crush on her helper. Numbers - father and son geniuses use math to solve crimes, I forget which one is with law enforcement and which is the quirky one. Shows and movies like this always involve supervisors itching to get rid of the nonconformist genius, but they're so good at what they do that the boss can't afford to shut them out. Like the punchline of the old joke...because we need the eggs. If you don't know the gag, you could look it up.

Brazil. Director Terry Gilliam is one weird dude. Mind control is the tool of a relentless bureaucracy. I finally saw it a second time just the other day, many many years after the first viewing. Shades of Brave New World with a sick comic twist. If I ever get Netflix or Hulu I'm going to go through Terry Gilliam's films one by one. I've already seen Time Bandits, And Now for Something Completely Different, The Life of Brian, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and I'd like to see them all again. Looking at the list of Gilliam's movies on IMDB, Jabberwocky is one I want to check out.

The fearsome Jabberwock brings us full circle back to Lewis Carroll and Alice, and with that I bid you good night.

Jun 9, 2011

Mental Health Happy Hour

The title grabbed me when I saw it on the list of newer podcasts at the iTunes store. The description nailed it when it turned out to feature interviews with creative types dealing with mental illness, especially depression. That's me all over, my friend. A musician who's been taking Prozac for years and not shy talking about it, firm in the conviction that depression can be better understood if we don't try to hide it from each other. On the other hand, my more serious bout with mental illness from college days is something I won't write about publicly, but will still discuss with people I get to know pretty well.

Anyway, this was my latest venture into podcasts, the 21st century medium (late 20th, actually, but if you won't tell then I won't) that I find astonishingly fertile. We're talking Inquiring Minds Want to Know here, of course, and major breadcrumb city.

The Mental Health Happy Hour host is Paul Gilmartin, a professional comedian who is not shy about discussing his own adventures with depression, including frank revelations about his early life. Many of the guests are fellow comedians, people he happens to know, but the show is very young and I imagine that as it develops there could be musicians, visual artists, and other people like you and me who work with depression to varying degrees of success and are willing to talk about it.

Some guests also touch on religion and spirituality, although this is not by any means a "Put your hand on the radio and receive the blessing of..." vehicle. There are references to 12-step recovery but it is not an online AA meeting either. There is talk of childhood privation and even abuse, but neither is this a radio shrinkfest, and Paul is careful to disclaim same on his website and on the programs.

If you follow the link at the top of this post you will land on Paul's podcast page. I especially recommend the interview with Adam Carolla for his sensible and practical advice at the end of the hour, and the one with Murph, ex-con, for its frankness in dealing with criminality and violence, and where they may come from. Murph, despite being an Irish hood you might have expected to come from Boston or New York, is like Paul and most of his guests a resident of California.

Look at some other pages, too. Paul's own blog is there and gets some comments. Hundreds of people have taken an anonymous poll and the results are public without any names, of course. The comments and poll answers seem thoughtful and serious, which is really saying something when it comes to online discourse.

If the show title grabs you like it did me, check it out. If you like it, maybe click the PayPal button and send a few bucks. I haven't yet but I will. Keep on truckin', Paul.

May 10, 2011

Hygiene Hypothesis

Breadcrumbs, by which I mean tidbits of information that help me find my way, are coming thick and fast now that I've discovered podcasts. This morning I listened to Science Talk, a half-hour show from Scientific American, on the Hygiene Hypothesis. The title is "Can It Be Bad to Be Too Clean?"

The idea is that we can be too clean, too quick to wipe out microbes, and this change from earlier, dirtier environments has been so fast that the delicate balance of pathogens and our bodily responses has been affected. On the podcast Johns Hopkins researcher Kathleen Barnes mentioned two specific types of immune responses. One is geared toward microbes, and the other toward worms or parasites. It seems that when challenges to one are absent in early childhood, the other one gets out of whack. At least, this was my understanding. You can see the summary on this Scientific American webpage.

Here's an excerpt from www.hygienehypothesis.org :

Eliminating typhoid and cholera has saved millions of lives in the aggregate since sewers and clean drinking water were introduced in North American and Western Europe for instance. But in so doing we contributed to the rise of the modern diseases involving immune dysregulation, like Multiple Sclerosis, Crohn's, Ulcerative Colitis, Graves Disease, Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, Type I Diabetes, Asthma, Allergy, Coeliac Disease, and Sjogren's Syndrome.

I played in the dirt a lot as a kid in the suburbs of Indianapolis. I ate strawberries from the banks of the shallow drainage ditch behind our house, and built mud dams all the time. This was outer suburbia, one house away from working cornfields.

I happen to be completely free of allergies, although my mother had a severe life-threatening allergy to shrimp. By the way, I am diabetic Type 2. Mere anecdotal evidence, of course. Your mileage may vary.

May 6, 2011

Legs

When I was writing 30-second radio spots, as much as I wanted to make sparkling little masterpieces, the overriding priority was to crank 'em out and get 'er done. It makes sense, since as often as not I would rip the last page out of the manual typewriter (this was a few years back) and carry my stack of work to the production room where I proceeded to voice, add music, and dub to cartridge as many as a dozen or so, all in the space of an hour. An hour from starting at the typewriter, not from walking into the studio.

Nobody wants to run the same commercial year and in year out, and even if they did, we desperately craved some variety as much as our poor listeners. The alternatives? Rest the advertiser a while, then bring 'em back on. Or - write new spots and keep 'em running. Uh, guess which one always won out?

So if I had to write a fresh new angle every time, well, you can imagine how unrealistic that would be with the kind of crank-'em-out pressure we were under. The goal became to find a concept with "legs," meaning spots that could hammer home the same selling pitch but with enough slight variations to make them easy to churn out, masquerading as fresh, or as the TV networks will trumpet, "All new!" Yeah, right.

The big boys look for the same thing. That's how you get the AFLAC duck. Bookend him with any scene you like, as long as he shouts "AFLAC" at some point, you've got another winner. Easy to write, easy to sell, and not even too irritating for us viewers. The hardest part is coming up with the concept in the first place, but boy is it worth the effort when you find one with "legs."

And now, back to the continuing adventures...In our last blog post, bookworm Ted was wondering why he's lost interest in episodic TV. As we rejoin his confused mental maunderings, let's see if he's made any progress mit zis puzzlement...

Maybe Shakespeare wasn't trying for home run masterpieces when he did all those Henrys and Richards. Maybe he was just trying to earn a living. Maybe Coppola wasn't even trying to make a sequel even more highly regarded than the original (Godfathers I and II), it just happened that way when he was trying to make the best movies he could to put butts in the seats and a (nice) roof over his family's head. Maybe Sue Grafton isn't trying to write D Is for Dostoevsky after all, and the guys who dreamed up The Honeymooners for Gleason and Carney weren't thinking, "How can we put them in a situation in sync with the dramatic arc?" Maybe they were all just looking for concepts with legs.

And my point? As much as I loved MASH and House and Upstairs, Downstairs and Happy Days and Eight Is Enough and all the other silly and wonderful and heartbreaking TV shows I have loved over the years, maybe I have come to prefer the stand-alone work to the concept with legs.

I don't think the Coen brothers have written any recurring characters, nor has Woody Allen. "A" for effort, for doing everything from scratch instead of starting from a mix. Although I must confess a real fondness for Sherlock Holmes, and Sayres' Lord Peter Wimsey, and any number of other recurring characters. Of course, this betrays my preference for reading. Most days I'd rather re-read a favorite novel than try to get interested in any newer TV series.

Yes, I loved seeing Newhart walk off the elevator, and chanting "Hi, Bob" with my dorm buddies and the cast on screen. I loved hearing the Skipper call Gilligan "Little Buddy," and all the other catch phrases built in to these things over the years. I may even come to love them again.

But for now, stand-alone movies and books and TV shows and podcasts are holding my attention even when outstanding work like episode 2 of Game of Thrones leaves me indifferent.

To be fair, some artists produce work along similar lines almost like a series, even when they don't mean to. Novelist Joanne Harris doesn't write a recurring character like Grafton's Kinsey Milhone, but she keeps writing about unusual single women of mystery with daughters, living in small villages. And Richard Russo seems to have a thing with diners. Both great novelists, though, and probably not intentionally setting out to repeat themselves.

Just one more thing. I really am enjoying my newfound appreciation for podcasts. The latest This American Life with Ira Glass is called "Prom." One part of the podcast is an interview with Francine Pascal, author of the Sweet Valley High series of novels for teenagers, some 35 of which involve a high school prom in some way. You think that's a lot of books? Not even close. Wikipedia says there are 183 novels in the first series alone, and several spinoffs have followed.

On the podcast, the author says there are 500 Sweet Valley books out now. Ghostwriters are involved, of course. Do you think any of them rise to the level of Harris's Chocolat or Russo's Empire Falls? Seems doubtful.

The punchline - HBO made a tremendous four-part mini-series from Empire Falls. You could make the case that the novel was too long and complex to fit in just two or three hours. Or you could say that HBO figured they'd found something with legs.

You know that feeling of dread that comes when you hear a great movie has been turned into a series? Sometimes it works out well, like American Graffiti and Happy Days. But even in the best-case scenario, would anyone really argue that catchphrases from the Fonz ("Heyyyy...") measure up to the movie's more considerable weight?

What do you think?