Thursday, January 31, 2008

It's a Wrap

Three years ago, the startup Anne was working for imploded in a giant mess of mismanagement. As bad as this was for financial and career reasons, the upshot was that we got a few nice pieces of electronics equipment free or cheap. One of those things was a Sony MiniDV video camera.

As soon as I got my hands on that, I started coming up with ideas for movies. Most of them were crap, but one of them had some legs (so to speak): Thaco's Last Stand.

(Those of you who are uber-geeks may recognize "Thaco" as a reference to 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons, where "THAC0" was an acronym which stood for "To hit armor class 0". Suffice it to say, it was a bass-ackwards way to figure out what you needed to roll to hit your opponent. The rest of you can go ahead and skip the rest of this post, as the gaming nerdery has just begun.)

The idea was this: we film a series of short episodes about a party of half-baked fantasy heroes, but only the parts in-between adventures, which is spent in the local tavern, Thaco's Last Stand.

If anyone ever watched the Tick live-action TV show, this might sound familiar. That show was great because it followed four semi-super-heroes around in their mundane everyday lives: getting a driver's license, having barbecues, hanging out at the diner. Almost never did they show any action. So picture that idea, but with D&D characters, and lots of jokes about the characters knowing the rules of the game.

(Not that it would ever come up, but the back story on Thaco is that he was a hero during the 2nd Edition days, when having a lower armor class was better and when 3rd Edition came around his low armor class made him extremely vulnerable and he got his legs chopped off by a goblin. So he retired from adventuring and opened up a bar.)

With a script written and actors attached, we needed a set. Since we would be filming in my garage, the requirements for the set were that it had to:
  • fit in the garage (7' clearance)
  • collapse neatly for storage
  • be able to stand in for the exterior and the interior of the tavern
  • not look too terribly cheesy
Yarry, Ken and Quint came over one day two and a half years ago to construct the set. While Quint and I designed, built, tested, redesigned and rebuilt the set support structures, Yarry and Ken cut and painted mattress foam to make faux stonework, painted the wall panels, and drank beer.

I'm really happy with the way the set turned out, especially the structure pieces. In fact, I'm going to donate them to the local Santa Cruz filmmakers club, Cinemar, if anyone wants them.

Yarry also painted the tavern sign, which totally rocks. I'm going to hang that up somewhere in the new house.

We had two rehearsals, one before the set was built, and one after. Both were filmed, and I edited them to practice editing and see how I wanted to do the shots. That was all in the summer/fall of 2005.

And then, the production went "on hiatus".

In November 2005, we all got laid off (well, those of us who worked for Nokia, which was most of us), so for the next few months everyone was scrambling around finding new jobs. Then we were settling into our new lifestyles (some people had long commutes over the hill) and we never got back together to do the final shoot.

I admit to much inertia on my part, as director/producer. We still needed to figure out two costumes, and I have no clue about costumes, so I kept dragging my feet. This went on for two and a half years.

Then, Anne and I made the decision to move. Now, all of a sudden we had a deadline - film or no film, we had to get rid of the set pieces before we moved.

Of course, trying to get everyone together to film proved to be challenging, especially with the holidays and all the crap we were doing for the move. But I had to try - not only would the sets go to waste, but people had actually invested money (to help pay for the set construction) and I would have had to pay them back.

Last weekend, we finally did it. It was exhausting: putting up the set outside for the outdoor shot, moving it inside for the indoor shot, moving everything around for the other indoor shot, making sure everyone has costumes and enough alcohol in them to get in front of a camera. But it came together. It took us six hours to shoot an hour's worth of footage, which will be edited into a fifteen-minute skit, which will probably be viewed by a total of seven people.

It's a shame that we won't be reusing the sets like we had planned (I had already come up with a few ideas for subsequent episodes), but hopefully someone else can take advantage of them. Having sat outside for two years, they did acquire a nice patina, lending some authenticity to the fantasy tavern illusion.

Overall, it was a great experience, and I hope to do it again. This was the first time I had written, directed and produced something myself. Usually, I have one or more partners (Matt, Quint) for the writing and producing part (although I usually get to do most of the directing as I try to stay behind the camera), so it was interesting trying to realize my own vision. Not that it was a solo endeavor. Not by a long shot, as the credits will attest. But I was the one driving it.

Lessons Learned
  • I like doing the writing, directing, cinematography, set building and editing, but I really need a production assistant for shoots. Someone who corrals the talent, makes sure everyone has what they need (caffeine, snacks, booze, costume, makeup, props), and is where they need to be. When I'm in the middle of creating my art, the last thing I want to do is manage people. I do that at work.
  • I need to write some stories that take place in the present day. Trying to make six pieces of plywood look like a fantasy tavern really limits your camera angles. On the other hand, the limited set made us be very creative.
  • I will kick the tripod over at least once per shoot. At least this time, I was quick enough to catch the camera.
  • Always - always - do a sound check. This I learned on previous shoots, and it paid off here. Unfortunately, right now my rig does not include a field mixer, so the mic plugs right into the camera, and I don't have a way to monitor the sound. So my sound checks consist of filming some test footage, then rewinding and listening to it.
Anyway, look for the final product on in the coming weeks (depending on how long it takes to get the special effects done). I'll post a link here as soon as it's up.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Keep it Stable, Steady

This an ingenious idea for a cheap, portable camera stabilizer. Even though my 50mm f/1.8 lens takes pretty decent pictures in low light, I'm going to make one of these and stick it in my camera bag.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Lead Zeppelin

Once more, with feeling: The past tense of "lead" is "led", not "lead".

You know who you are, so stop it.

I am not a crank.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

T-Minus 22 Days

It is now just over three weeks until we move. The excitement in the Smith household is palpable. Even the cats sense something's up (as they do every time we go on vacation).

Speaking of the cats, we're currently in the middle of a long-term deceptive plan to get them on the plane. Anne got two airline pet carriers, which we leave open in the office so they can get used to them. The plan being that on the big day, we can nonchalantly zip the cats up in them and they won't know until it's too late. It won't happen like that, I'm sure, but at least they won't suspect too much until the first zipper zips.

You may be asking yourself "Two carriers? I thought you had three cats?", and you'd be right. Unfortunately, the airlines only allow two pets in the cabin per flight, so one (un)lucky cat has to go in cargo. Just try to imagine a 5 1/2 hour flight locked in a box with no idea what's going on. Doesn't sound pleasant, especially since the two older cats cry incessantly for the entire fifteen minute drive to the vet's once a year.

We're trying to nail down the logistics of closing on our new house in PA. Of course, we picked a pseudo-holiday (President's Day) to try to close, which means there is no money wiring going on and the banks are all closed. Our agent out here says the money can be wired from our buyers to the builder of our house the previous Friday, so hopefully that will work out and we can just sign the papers Monday morning.

As far as packing goes, we're doing a little bit here and there, and the house is slowly filling up with boxes. As it turns out, the cost of moving a 4-bedroom house across the country is so enormous that paying the movers to pack our stuff is a relatively insignificant part of that, so whatever we don't feel like packing ourselves, we'll leave for them.

We've managed to get rid of 90% of the crap we didn't want (craigslist is a wonderful thing), which is good because we're selling the Subaru and won't be able to make any big dump runs without borrowing somebody's truck.

At three weeks, it's now really starting to feel tangible. Instead of the move being "something that's going to happen in a few months", it's now "Oh shit, I only have three weeks to get all this done?". But I think we've got everything under control - it's just that final few days of paperwork and logistics that's going to keep us awake at night until it's over.

Once we're there, I'll have two weeks off before starting my new job. That two weeks will be filled with: unpacking, registering the cars, getting drivers' licenses, unpacking, finding new doctors/dentists/hairstylists, unpacking, my dad's birthday, more unpacking, my sister's newborn baby, and still more unpacking. All in the dead of winter. Should be fun re-learning how to drive in the snow.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Take That, Uri Geller

XKCD has a simple, yet very true graph on supernatural powers.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Hit and Run Comic Review: Ant-Man

In this issue, I will attempt to review a single issue of a comic book, assuming that I can get an entire feel for the gestalt of the characters and scenarios by just reading one issue.

For this installment, I review Ant-Man, issue #8, from March of 1973.

Main Character: Dr. Henry Pym/Ant-Man
  • With the aid of a gas he developed, can shrink himself or anyone else to the size of an ant, and then re-biggen himself to normal size with a different gas.
  • Has developed a helmet with which he can communicate telepathically with ants. Seriously.
Love Interest(s):
  • Maria Pym (nee Maria Trovaya) - Wife, killed by Hungarian secret police on honeymoon in Hungary.
  • Janet Van Dyne - Daughter of Dr. Vernon Van Dyne, ditzy brunette with a taste for revenge.
  • The creature from planet Kosmos
  • Reason
  • Realistic dialog
Issue #8 of Ant-Man provides a succinct collection of not only Ant-Man's origin, but the origin of his partner/wife The Wasp (Janet Van Dyne), provided in flashback form by the legendary Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. I realize that Stan and Jack are the thunderbolt-hurling main gods of the Marvel Pantheon, but the writing and artwork in this issue is reminiscent of nothing more than an episode of Mark Trail in the daily funny pages.

The issue starts off with a framing story line about The Wasp reverting to her wasp-brain and attacking Ant-Man, her husband. While trying to escape, he falls and gets knocked unconscious, which opens the rest of the book to flashback scenes about his and her origins, which had already been recounted in other comics. So basically, this comic is 2.3 pages of new material, a bunch of reprinting of already shown storyline, and another 2/3 of a page of new material. The issue doesn't even conclude the Wasp-attacking-Ant-Man storyline, but leaves it as a cliff-hanger for the next issue.

Since I know none of you have ever read Ant-Man (neither had I until I won this issue by answering a trivia question), I'll now summarize his origin story as short as possible before you get bored and fall asleep: Dr. Henry Pym and his new bride, Maria, honeymoon in Hungary (during the Iron Curtain) because she grew up there and wanted to revisit her homeland. As soon as they step out of the airport, the secret police knock him out and kill her for trying to escape communism. After that, Dr. Pym decides to devote his life to finding a way to shrink himself to the size of an ant and learn how to communicate with ants.

No, really. That's it. I didn't make any of that up. The first thing you're going to ask yourself is: what super powers does he get when shrinking to ant size? The answer is: none, although he retains "much of the strength of a full-grown human". So, he's half an inch tall, but still almost as strong as he was. What's the advantage? He's stronger than the average ant?

Much of the rest of the issue is taken up with the Wasp's origin story, which is even lamer than Ant-Man's. In one of the most stilted-dialog scenes since a Robert Ludlum novel, Dr. Vernon Van Dyne comes calling at Dr. Pym's laboratory, seeking his help on a Gamma ray emitter he's working on.

First of all, Dr. Pym's research all has to do with shrinking and ants. Why Dr. Van Dyne sought his help in trying to send gamma rays to far off planets is beyond me, except that this comic was written in the early 70's, and anything having to do with science was pretty much voodoo to the lay public, so I'll let that slide. But Dr. Pym doesn't. He totally blows Dr. Van Dyne (and his lovely daughter, who looks oh so much like his late wife, Maria) off to get back to his ant research.

As you might expect, it's not too long before Dr. Van Dyne's gamma ray emitter attracts an unnamed alien from the planet Kosmos (calling Carl Sagan, your lawyer is on line 2) who "escaped down the path of your ray" from Kosmos to Earth. This alien was apparently kind of like General Zod and Jabba the Hutt all rolled into one, as he looks like mutant toad, and is out to conquer the Earth. But since he never actually got a name, you figure they'll dispatch him by the end of the issue.

So Janet arrives home to find her father killed by toad boy, and calls Dr. Pym, rather than, oh I don't know, 911? Dr. Pym doesn't believe that her father is dead because, you know, she's a woman, and this is 1973. But then he hears about Dr. Van Dyne's death from the freakin' ants. Given the expert ant testimony, he puts on his Ant-Man suit, shrinks down to ant size, and shoots himself out of a mini-cannon to the Van Dyne's domicile.

That's right. Ant-Man's main form of transportation is shooting himself out of a tabletop cannon he calls a "catapult" even though it's clearly a barrel-shaped object he crawls into and aims at his destination. As far as a safe landing goes, "the ants will be waiting for me to form a soft platform for me to land on!" Until this, I didn't realize there was anyone lamer than Aqua-Man.

Fortunately, Janet has no problem seeing, hearing and even believing an ant-sized super hero. Perhaps it's due to his shouting:

Ant-Man: Hello! I'm Ant-Man! Perhaps you've heard of me! I've come to help you!

Janet: I have heard of you, but ... I thought you were only a myth! My father ... he's dead ... in his laboratory ... There was a strange mist ... I came in and found him ...

(apparently Janet's innate super power is to speak in sentences that never end, just fade into one another)

Ant-Man: He's been murdered ... almost looks like he died of fright! There's something strange ... something eerie here! I can sense it!

Over the next few panels, Ant-Man senses a deep drive for revenge in Janet, and so chooses her to be his partner in microscopy and perhaps in love. He tells her about his secret identity, and shoots her up with enough genetically-modified cells to become The Wasp to help him find and kill her father's murderer.

At this point, I should recap: We have a scientist and his groupie, who have the power to shrink themselves down to insect-size, versus an intergalactic criminal who is made up of formic acid and is bent on taking over the world. How do we know he is made up of formic acid, you may ask? The ants told us, of course! They can sense that type of thing, and have the cognitive ability to relay it to Dr. Pym. Duh! Stupid.

You may wonder what in the fuck Ant-Man could do to stop the Man from Kosmos, and well you might. As it turns out, he's a scientist. And, while I am all for positive science role models in the media, this is just ridiculous (and I say that as a big fan of MacGyver). Dr. Pym devises an antidote for formic acid, loads it into a bunch of shotgun shells, and shoots the hell out of the alien.

But where do his ant-powers come in to play here? Not at all, except as a drawback. You see, after he loads up the shotgun and the shells, he and Janet shrink to insect size, just so it's harder for them to transport and fire the shotgun. He now has to call upon his army of ant friends to carry the shotgun and the box of shells many blocks to Wall Street to defeat the alien. Once there, rather than, say, reverting to human size and picking up the gun, he has the ants form an ant pyramid to aim the gun, while he pulls at the trigger with both arms. I am still not making this up.

After a few shots, the creature fades away into mist, leaving New York safe for the muggers and junkies once more.

If you're wondering where, in any of this, Ant-Man's powers came in to play, join the club. I can't think of a more useless super hero, and they're making a movie out of him.

Worst Part: Ant-Man gave The Wasp wings to be able to fly, yet he still uses his cannon to shoot himself around New York. What?

Best Part: The classic ads you find in comic books of the era, most notably:
  • X-Ray vision glasses: 75 cents.
  • "Boys sell GRIT for CASH PROFITS and FREE PRIZES". 7 cents profit per copy.
  • "Train with us for a HIGH PAY JOB IN DRAFTING!"
  • "I'll make you a master of karate", 99 cents. "Giant life-like karate practice dummy", also 99 cents. "Special money-saving combination offer": $1.98.
  • "Achtung! Reproduction German helmet. Includes liner and swastika decals" This from a company called "Adolf's". No joke.
  • A quick on/off combination mustache, sideburns and van dyke kit. Not for disguise purposes, but just to look good. $6.
  • "Too Skinny? New scientific discovery helps you put on weight". $4.98/100 tablets.
  • And of course the classic Charles Atlas ad on the back page, with the little cartoon of the dork getting sand kicked in his face in front of his girl at the beach. That one never goes out of style. "Oh, Mac! You are a real man after all!"

Four Weeks' Notice

I can finally reveal what was stressing me out last weekend. The big news is I've accepted a new job at Andesa Services in Allentown, PA. The reason I stressed so much about it is, for all the benefits it will offer (and there are many), Validus may be on the cusp of breaking out and succeeding. I've put a lot of work into it in the last two years, and I wanted to make sure that didn't go to waste.

After many conversations with folks here at Validus, discussions with Anne, and much soul-searching and ice cream, I decided it was best to move on.

I'm really looking forward to the new job. It will be interesting going back to an East Coast company after being in the Silicon Valley for 11 years. So I've compiled a list of ways you can tell you work for a Silicon Valley company.

How to tell you work at a Valley Company:
  • Work whatever hours you want, as long as you meet deadlines
  • Vacation days are on the honor system
  • Your first task at work is to build your workstation
  • Shoes and socks are optional.
  • If your shirt has a collar, you're a manager
  • Being at a company 3 years qualifies you as an "old-timer"
  • Nerf Wars
  • All-nighters
  • Foosball, ping pong, pool, arcade games, LAN parties - during work hours
  • Massive hiring, followed almost instantly by massive layoffs
  • Beer in the fridge
  • Everybody's a millionaire - on paper
Any others you can think of?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Codal Fitness

This is the first (of what I hope to be many) posts about software development. If you're not interested in that, feel free to go back and read the one about podcasts and booze.

My Current Project

Anne and I have a home gym consisting of:
  • a Bowflex machine
  • an elliptical trainer
  • various hand weights
  • an exercise ball
  • a DVD player and TV (very important, as exercising is boring as hell)
Unlike 98% of Bowflex owners, we actually use ours several times a week.

Until now, Anne kept track of her workout progress on scraps of paper, while I used the vast wasteland that is my brain (What was I up to on this exercise? 50 lbs?). So, I decided to write an application to do this for us.

Since we both have iPhones, I thought it would be useful to write a web application for it since we can keep it in our pocket or even on the couch next to the Bowflex where it's convenient to enter data. Besides, it would be a good way to learn web programming, especially Ajax.

After a few weeks of off-and-on coding, I cobbled together an application using HTML, Javascript, PHP and PostgreSQL, which allows a user to enter in the weight and reps of each set of each exercise in a workout. It saves all this in a database, which can be retrieved and displayed in a chart format (I don't have pretty graphs yet). It was now ready to test.

I forged down into the den/gym, iPhone in hand, to attempt to record my first workout. All was going well: I was able to easily enter data, add more exercises, etc. As always happens, though, I noticed several improvements that could be made. Switching over to the iPhone mail application, I started an email to myself listing these ideas.

Then I switched back to the web browser and learned my first big lesson about web development for the iPhone: when the iPhone senses it is getting low on RAM, the first thing it gets rid of is web pages, figuring it will just save the URL and reload the page. This does not work so well when you have an entire page full of data entered by the user. Poof! Gone.

I'm still working on a solution to that (which involves periodically sending the current data up to the server, which it stuffs into the database in XML format in case it needs to retrieve it later), but in the meantime I know not to switch to other apps (or even other memory-hungry web pages) while doing a workout.

A few tests later, I learned my second big lesson: Safari is much stricter than Firefox with regard to the DOM.

In this case, I was testing the ability to remove an exercise from the page (not sure why you would want to do this, but I put it in there anyway). As it turns out, I had used the same "id" attribute for the <div> I was removing as for an element within that <div>. Firefox happily removed the intended <div>, but Safari (both on the Mac and on the iPhone) puked and did all sorts of strange things.

Sure, I had a corrupted DOM, but it wasn't like it was ambiguous: I was removing a particular child <div> that had a particular <id>. It shouldn't have been looking at the <div>'s child nodes.

The difficult thing in that situation is that Safari's debugging tools are not quite as good as Firebug, so it's harder to trace these problems through when they only happen on Safari.

The third big lesson I learned is that trying to learn Javasript, PHP, and SQL at the same time - without any books - is like trying to learn French, Spanish and German at the same time by going to Epcot every day. There is a lot of documentation on the web for each of these, but it's pretty dispersed and incomplete. I just got the Javascript and PHP O'Reilly books, and already they've paid off.

Overall it's been really fun learning all these technologies, and architecting and developing my own little app, that is actually quite useful. Not to mention it relieves some of the boredom of working out.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

[Fiction] Hello, Ted

I can't tell you my big news yet, it's going to have to wait another day or so. In the meantime, here is a little bit of fiction for you.

Matt and I have been writing a story back and forth, just to keep our writing muscles working, as well as generate ideas for future films, and I thought I'd share with you some of my favorite passages.

The background is not that important - suffice it to say that Ted just escaped from a Tibetan monastery:
"Wow, that plan worked great", Ted thought as he got down off the camel. He glanced back up toward the mighty mountain peak where his erstwhile monastery lay nestled in the rocky crags. He smacked the camel on the rump, assuming it would return to the Sherpas who had loaned it to him, and hiked into town.

Well, "town" is kind of a generous term for the place Ted found himself. There was a road - well, a path, anyway. There was a market, of sorts, if you were in the market for anything made with, by or for yaks. But most important - the reason Ted had chosen this speck of a village to be the first stop on his escape route - they had a vehicle.

"Vehicle" was about the only word that could describe it. It had too many wheels for a motorcycle, but not enough for a car. Whereas most cars are made of things like metal, plastic and glass, this contraption was showing evidence in its construction of fur, hay, wood and some other things best left unidentified. Ted thought it looked like a roller skate for King Kong, But it had a motor, and could get him to the border, and that's all he needed right now. Well, some way to pay for it would be nice, too. Time for another plan.
Stay tuned for more of Ted's adventures in Tibet and western China.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Back in Black

Sorry I haven't blogged in a while. I'm working on a really long, personal post, and it will be ready in the next few weeks. In addition, it's been a frightfully stressful week, which I will tell you all about probably tomorrow.

Right now we're heading out for a night of Goth dancing at The Box - Santa Cruz's only weekly goth dance club. Despite going goth dancing several times a year, and going on the eminently awesome Goth Cruise, I don't really consider myself a goth. I'm not even a wannabe goth. I just like going out dancing with my wife, and I like some of the music (especially the harder stuff).

I need to get a minimum amount of dancing juice (martini) in me before I can really let go on the dance floor, and then I need to maintain that level to keep going. Even so, I only have about an hour or so of good dancing in me before I get worn out. But hanging out with the goth folks there is pretty fun, too.

Back soon!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Podcasts are the New Booze

When faced with a boring, repetitive, or otherwise mind-numbing task, like washing dishes, folding clothes or proving Fermat's last theorem, I used to find it helped to have a glass of wine or other adult beverage. It just made the whole endeavor much more pleasant.

Unfortunately, if you do this too much, you sort of - how shall I put it? - become an alcoholic.

Recently (well, within the last few years), I've discovered podcasts. Perhaps you've heard of them? They're like talk radio that doesn't suck.

What I've found is that instead of reaching for a bottle when I'm faced with one of these activities, I reach for my iPod (or, more recently, my iPhone, which is much closer, being in my pocket at all times). Now, I almost look forward to doing chores like raking the lawn, picking up the rotting apples that our trees spew all over the yard four months out of the year, or driving. Especially long trips. Listening to podcasts has turned several 8-hour treks to San Diego from interminable to actually enjoyable. (And no, I never drank to make driving more interesting. That would be wrong.)

(Sidenote Complete tangent: Those of you with iPhones, have you ever sent an email while wearing the earbuds? That little "whoosh" sound signifying the email flying away through the series of tubes is an awesome stereo sound that goes from one ear to the other. That's the attention to detail that makes people wait in line for days to buy expensive Apple products.)

What I tend to do is poke around on the iTunes store a couple times a year and pick out some new podcasts. Once I find one I really like, I download and listen to every single episode. Once I'm caught up, I find another one to obsess over and repeat the process.

About a year ago, I found the Penn Jillette show, which was an actual radio program that was recorded and published as a podcast. That ended in March of 07, so once I listened to all of those, I had to find another one.

My new obsession is the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. It's a great show, but I almost didn't get hooked on it because the first episode I listened to was the first one after one of the panelists had died, and it was a real downer. (The real creepy part was going back and listening to the episodes leading up to that, knowing he was about to die.)

The problem is that you can't be doing anything requiring complex brain activity and still listen to a podcast. At least I can't - I can only focus on one thing at a time. It has to be something that involves some amount of physical activity (walking to work/class, mowing the lawn, etc.) but nothing that involves certain information-processing areas of the brain.

The other side of it is, I need to be doing something. I find it extremely boring to just sit and listen to a podcast and do nothing. Airplane rides are iffy - staring at the back of the seat in front of me is not enough, but reading is too much. And if I close my eyes, I'm likely to fall asleep and miss half the podcast. So I usually end up listening to music and reading, or watching a video (iPhones - or any video media device - are seriously the best thing to happen to air travel since they shrunk liquor into tiny little bottles).

So thank you, Apple, and all you podcasters, for lessening my dependency on booze to smooth out the drudgery of life. Of course, booze and a podcast is even better ....

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Choose Your RSI

With his usual insight, Gruber discusses Bruce Tognazzini's classic analysis of keyboard shortcuts vs. mouse usage:
The main point here is that according to Apple’s late-80s user testing, it takes longer to use keyboard shortcuts than to use the mouse for most tasks, but it feels like the opposite is true, because for some reason people don’t notice the (significant) time that it takes to recall just which keys to press to invoke a keyboard shortcut.
I've seen Tog's analysis before (although possibly not all of it) and, while I agree that shortcut users tend to over-emphasize the gains - even to the extent of requiring keyboard shortcuts to every damn action no matter how many keystrokes it takes to eventualize the shortcut - I also took exception to the idea that the mouse is faster in all instances.

In addition to the exceptions that Tog and Gruber point out (two-handed input and repetitive actions), I would suggest another win for keyboard shortcuts: learned reactions.

Sure, when you first start using an application or operating system, it takes you time to remember the keyboard shortcuts, probably longer than hunting for it with the mouse. But after a while, you tend to learn the shortcuts for the actions you use most, and for those actions, the shortcut is probably going to be faster than using the mouse.

I do this all the time. When I first started learning to edit video in iMovie, I had to use the menus for just about everything. Eventually, I learned how to split a clip (Cmd-T), add a chapter marker (Cmd-Shift-M) and save the frame as a stillshot (Cmd-F), among others. These were actions I used a lot. Maybe other editors used different actions frequently, and so learned different shortcuts.

With regards to Gruber's last paragraph:
It’s obvious that commands that are used frequently should get shortcuts, but so too should commands that, even if they’re used infrequently, are likely to be invoked several times in short order when they are used.
It comes back to the fact that different commands are going to be common for different people. This is why Mac applications tend to be better than Windows applications: Apple developers spend time figuring out which commands will be common for most people and give them shortcuts. They may not get all of them for everybody, but they do a good job of getting most of them for most people.

Windows (and for that matter, all flavors of X-based UNIX) kind of throws its hands up and says, "We have no idea what you're going to do with this, so we'll give every single command in the menu system a shortcut. You just have to use Alt-(something) to do it, where (something) is some random letter contained in the name of the command." (And yes, I realize that Microsoft and other Windows developers do spend time figuring out which commands to attach Ctrl- shortcuts to, but in my experience, many Windows users get annoyed if you don't give every single command an Alt-based shortcut as well.)

Like many arguments, I think the whole "keyboard shortcut vs. mouse" argument is a false dichotomy. The best efficiency is achieved through an intelligent combination of both.

My First LOLcat

I just submitted a picture to, check it out. More importantly, vote for it!

This is a picture of our fat cat Schnurr right before Thanksgiving dinner. If you look close, the scrap of paper on the platter says "turkey", because, yes, we label all of our serving platters with the intended contents.

Fish in the Attic

As you know, Anne and I are moving. Very soon, in fact. Well, unless these asshat buyers screw it up.

In case you haven't bought or sold a house before, here's how it usually works:
  1. You spend two weeks tromping dirt through dozens of houses people have paid other people to make presentable (because the way you keep your house is just not acceptable).
  2. You make an offer. The seller gets a better offer.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 until the seller accepts your offer.
  4. Once you have a signed offer, you are "in contract". Money is on the line. You follow a set of steps until everything clears and you own your new house, which you promptly depreciate by moving in.
  5. One of the steps along the way is that you, the buyer, have a certain amount of time (say, three weeks) to release all of your contingencies. After this point, if you back out, you lose your huge deposit. During this time, you can have all the inspections done that you want, and if anything turns up, you can back out, no problem.
Well, the date for releasing contingencies on our house was the 28th. The buyers had three weeks to have any inspections done. They had none. The day before the deadline they asked if they could come by the house with their contractor friend and take a look. No problem. Except the contractor friend flaked. So they asked for a week extension.

Grudgingly, we accepted. We are in contract on our new house, and would very much like this to go smoothly. And it is, in fact, a buyer's market.

Here we are a week later. Not a peep from the buyers until today (the day before the deadline), and they want another week extension to have half a dozen inspections done - some of which we already had done, to save them the trouble.

I don't care how much of a buyer's market it is, there are other people interested in the house, and we can't wait forever. These screwballs are just pushing us to see how far we'll bend. Their realtor, who is also our realtor, has repeatedly told them about the deadlines, and offered to get any inspections done, which they failed to take advantage of.

This extension is going to cost them (if we agree to it at all). Any ideas?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Good Riddance

Looks like I started this blog just in time for the requisite New Year's post. I don't know about you, but I'm seriously glad to see the dust of 2007 in my rear view mirror. It seems to have been an overall crappy year for a lot of people, myself included. Not uniformly bad, but coated by a layer of extra-glossy suck that permeated the whole thing.

I'm going to attempt to exorcise 2007 from my psyche by writing about it. Maybe once it's out on the page, it won't be infecting my morale as much.

These are some of the bad things that happened this year:
  • My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer this year. She had a lump and several lymph nodes removed, and is currently undergoing chemo and will soon be doing radiation therapy. Breast cancer is one of the most recoverable cancers, as I understand, and two of her sisters have successfully made it through. Still, the chemo is very hard on her, and she has some very bad days. But we're hopeful. This is one of the reasons we're moving - to be close to her and the rest of my family. To be able to help, and just to be there and spend time with them.
  • In September, we lost our very special cat, Grau. He was at the vet for a routine dental cleaning, and he had to have a few teeth removed. Apparently his heart stopped while coming out of the anesthesia. He was only seven years old. We were really devastated by this. He was about the most interactive and affectionate cat I've ever seen. We miss him tremendously.
  • Nobody assassinated impeached Bush and company yet. What do these criminals have to do to get some repercussions? I thought once the Democrats took over Congress we'd see some action, but they're too impotent to do anything. (OK, that's all the political stuff you'll hear from me.)
  • The less said about work, the better.
As I mentioned, it wasn't all bad. We did have some great times this year. These are some of the good things that happened:
  • Anne and I went on a Goth Cruise in October for our anniversary. This was probably the most awesome vacation I've ever been on. Imagine piling two hundred of your best friends on a ship and cruising around the Caribbean with DJ dance parties every night and a private VNV Nation concert. The best part was, we hadn't met any of these people before, and we came away with dozens of new friends from all parts of the country. Simply amazing. It was really fun scaring the straights. We've already signed up for next this year.
  • To help us get over the loss of Grau, we adopted a new kitten from the shelter. Yes, he's also all grey, but his hair is longer. And he has several extra toes, which make his paws look like baseball mitts. His name is Zwei, being the second grey cat. He's simply adorable - playful, affectionate, curious and fearless. It only took a few days to get him used to the other cats (and vice versa). Very quickly he and Schnurr became best friends, which is really nice, because Schnurr had been moping and whining around the house since Grau died.
Part of what got me through the train wreck that was 2007 was hope. There are some big changes coming down the pike, which I am so ready for.

Some things I'm looking forward to in 2008:
  • Anne and I are moving from California to Pennsylvania in February. We're looking forward to that for many reasons. Not only will we have a huge new house on lots of land with a very low mortgage, but we will be minutes away from my parents and sister, and within an hour or two of lots of other family and friends. We will certainly miss our friends here in CA, but we think this is going to be a very good move.
  • My sister his having her second baby at the end of January. Her first daughter, Alyssa, is five going on six, and I hardly know her, seeing as how I only see her once a year, if that. I'm going to remedy that once we move. We're going to be the cool aunt and uncle that the kids want to hang out with (at least until they're teenagers, then all adults are uncool, right?).
  • Something's going to happen with work, one way or another, this year. Here's hoping it's good.
I've never been one for New Year's resolutions. Mostly it was because I was lazy. But now it's more that I don't feel the need to wait for the new year to set goals for myself. I have an ongoing To Do list, which keeps track of my goals. But, this is a good opportunity to put some of these out there for everyone to see, and to reinforce them in my head. So here are some of my resolutions:
  • One reason I started this blog is so that I can practice writing more. I've been trying to work on my writing for a couple years now, with limited success. I don't think we have many readers at, and if we do, we don't have much of a feedback mechanism, so sometimes it's like sending stuff out into a black hole (which is fine - we're mostly doing that website to amuse ourselves, anyway). I'm hoping that if people start reading this blog and posting comments, I'll be encouraged to keep writing.
  • I've been working on increasing my programming skills for a few months now, and I want to step it up in '08. I have some projects I'm working on, including an iPhone-targeted web app. My goal is to get it to a state where I feel good submitting it to one of the online repositories, like sourceforge or even Apple's iPhone web app site.
  • In general, I want to become more of a producer, and less of a consumer. For most of my life, I've consumed: TV, movies, books, websites, etc. I don't want to be that passive anymore. We got rid of cable TV this year, and it was the best thing we ever did. Now we watch DVDs if anything, and the lack of advertising alone is worth the change. Of course, now I've got an RSS feed list a mile long. Need to avoid getting sucked into that.
  • Relationships. All relationships take work, and even more so if you are separated by great distances. I want to improve my relationships with my family (hence the move), friends (another reason I started this blog), and most especially Anne. We've had a stressful first few years of marriage, due to various things, and I would like to work on improving the situation.
So that's my year-end wrap-up, cat pictures included (as required by section 15 sub-paragraph J of the official Intarweb content rules). What about you? How was 2007 for you? Do you have any resolutions?