News Readers: Bad UI or Bad Docs?

On Wednesday evening I went to a little pre-Supernova 2004dinner. Joichi Ito suggested the dinner, however he was not in attendance as he was in Japan or somewhere. But 110 people showed up anyway. Talk about the power of suggestion. (Or the power of a blog.)

Since Supernova had a session entitled “Syndication Nation: Is This What Comes After the Web?”, I was able to get some solutions to the issues in my previous post. And better yet, the solutions came from the mouths of the guys creating the software for this stuff. (I say guys as there were a total of 5 women in the room that evening, including myself.)

Ultimately what I learned on Wednesday night was that a lot of my frustration came from not knowing how to properly use the tools that I already have on my computer. I’d like to think that it’s not because I’m a stupid user, but more because I’m an ill-informed user. Since many of these newsreaders developed as side projects, there’s a lack of technical documentation. And I’m sure they’ll all acknowledge that and say “But we don’t have money for it.” My suggestion, find it. Or find friends that are willing to help you out. The reason I say that is because you won’t be able to rise to the top without it. Just check out the reviews of some the newsreaders that are out there. I can tell you that the negative comments for SharpReader result from the fact that the user doesn’t fully understand how to use it. Actually before you write the user guide, do some user testing. You’ll see what greatly needs to be improved immediately.

Newsgroup issue solved!
While eating some yummy Indian appetizers, Mark Fletcher of Bloglines sat down at my table. Little did he know he chose to sit near a “stupid user”, well, more like ill-informed user. I told Mark that I wanted feeds of my Phish newsgroup. He nicely informed me that Google Groupsjust introduced xml feeds for all of their newsgroups. So I came home, and low and behold, after googling the Google site for it I found it. Buried in Google Labs. So I can now subscribe via the Google Groups 2 beta. Thanks Mark for pointing me in the right direction! Although I could have avoided looking like a newbie to the newsgroup rss if a) I wasted time to dig a little deeper to find it and b) Google had a link to their Google Groups 2 Beta off the Google Groups page. Bad UI? Or do they just not want me finding it?

Next on my list – Calendars.
Although I was privy to a heated discussion on foaf a few weeks back, I didn’t realize that the conversation over dim sum was a potential answer to the calendaring and friends question. Jonathan Moore told me that Mosuki is the answer. It combines social networking and an events calendar. I’ve tried it. It’s cool, but it need user documentation. So I’ve agreed to write it. I’ll let you know what it can do later once I’ve learned more about it.

Newsreader TiVo
Supposedly, NewsMonster can tell me what other sites I might like based on what I’m already subscribed to. Well, that’s what Kevin Burtonsaid, and I have yet to find out. NewsMonster doesn’t seem to work with my Windows operating system at the moment, but Kevin said that within the next month he’d send me a copy that will. I’m holding him to it! Oh and for those who read the Wired article on Kevin, he’s not creepy like it makes him out to be.

There’s an Orkut in my newsreader?
Well this one seems to be a bit far off. First, all the friendsters, orkuts, and other social networking systems would have to be able to talk to each other. Marc Canter is a great one to debate with on this topic. He’s working on getting them all to at least play nice with each other. Just don’t start with security issues. Once that’s sorted out perhaps they’ll then implement something with RSS.

Websites without RSS?
Seems that there are sites/people out there that are developing feeds for sites that are not embracing RSS. However, sometimes they get into trouble from the website owners. I don’t see why you wouldn’t create RSS files for your site. Loss of revenue, maybe. But if you only serve out a portion of the article or a brief synopsis of what’s been updated, then people will have to go to the site anyway. I thought of a great use for RSS in direct marketing, including building a list database and how it discourages list selling. But I’ll tell you about it later.


News Junkie Gone Mad

I tried to cut myself off. It lasted a day. I can’t take it anymore! I need a the ultimate information manager. Does it even exist?

Give me something that will do all of these thing: be an rss reader, manage my email, a newsreader for my rec.music.phish newsgroup, tell me if my favorite websites are updated, update me on threads in my Orkut communities and let me post to it, tell me if my friends’ calendars have changed for Friday night, navigate through friends’ foaf, and basically make it so that I don’t have to waste my time checking to see if there’s new information in my favorite places. Oh and it should recommend things that I might be interested in, whether its something new at Amazon, an event on Craigslist, or a new website. Maybe what I really want is a TiVo for the web.

Perhaps I’m just lazy. Or perhaps I’m tired of the fact that all these communities, newsreaders, webmails, and sites on the web have become little islands unto themselves with no active connection to the outside world, and I, the cybertraveller, have to paddle out to them just to find out what’s new on each island. It’s not efficient, and I’d rather be spending my time writing.

I know that there are all these separate projects going on right now that solve some of my complaints here, but I want them to all come together and create the mother of all information managers. However, they can’t agree on a standard for some of this stuff, so how would they ever agree to work together?


Happy 100th Bloomsday!

On 16 June 1904 Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, two characters in James Joyce’s Ulysses, set out on their epic journey through the streets of Dublin. Today also happens to be the 100th anniversary of Nora Barnacle and James’ first date, and let’s just say Nora wasn’t the good little Catholic girl that evening down by Dublin Bay. And if it wasn’t for Nora we probably wouldn’t even have this behemoth of a book, as she was the one who fished it out of the fireplace after one of James’ typical tantrums.

Your man wasn’t celebrated until after his death and slowly over the years Bloomsday turned into a tribute to Joyce. A few years ago I was in Dublin on Bloomsday. There were groups in Joycean dress following the path Bloom took that day. And I even tried to grab a glass of burgundy and a gorgonzola sandwich at Davey Byrne’s just off Grafton, but alas they had already drank the pub dry and strewn across the tables were the skeletons of eaten sandwich crusts. So I headed over to the James Joyce Room at Bewley’s instead. With the throngs of people at the 100th anniversary this year, I’m sure there are more than a few gorgonzola sandwiches lining Grafton Street.

And if burgundy or gorgonzola sandwiches aren’t for you, well then grab a pint of the black stuff, some bangers and mash, curl with a copy of Ulysses and try to make a dent in its 933 pages. Or may I suggest the film about Mrs. Joyce, Nora.

Movie Reviews, Writing

The Art of the Story

Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, DreamWorks, Pixar, and at one time Disney. What do all of these things have in common? They all had highly successful, well-received films because they know how to tell a good story well.

Think about the types of films that they’ve all created. Many of them had fantastic special effects and featured cutting-edge technology. But that’s not why people love them. Audiences get caught up in the struggle of a little fish trying to find his son. They feel the heartache and frustration of a giant green ogre that’s trying to impress his in-laws. Audiences cried when Wilson the volleyball gets swept out to sea – granted a lot of that had to do with the acting, but there was a heartfelt story behind it. The audience becomes a part of the action that is going on up on the screen, because the directors can tell a story. And that is why people love the films.

I wonder if young filmmakers are truly grasping this concept.

Reason I ask is that last week I caught a free screening of Napoleon Dynamite from Fox Searchlight. It’s a quirky little story about a social outcast in high school. Created by a husband and wife team, Jared and Jerusha Hess, out of Bingham Young University, it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic Film at Sundance and won the Film Discovery Jury Award for Best Feature at the U.S. Comedy Festival. However, I don’t see what all the fuss is about over this movie. We love it because it’s different. It’s not the same vein of lackluster comedy that’s being spewed out of Hollywood. Yes it has some great funny bits. Yes the actor playing Napoleon, Jon Heder, does a good job at deadpan comedy. But it doesn’t all come together they way it could.

I hate to see what could be a great little movie turn into a flop. There were a number of times throughout the film that I wasn’t engaged in the story. That was mainly in the beginning, which droned on for what seemed like an hour, before we know what this story is about. Once you get to the story it is very sweet and funny. It reminded me to some extent of the Royal Tenenbaum ( especially the beginning titles) in that it’s a reflection back on a childhood that was awkward, a bit strange, and weird. But it seemed the Hesses were more concerned about getting all those funny skits that they thought up into the movie rather than telling the story.

There are lots of little skits/scenes that are precious. Yet, there seems to be a disconnect between them sometimes that resulted in a number of lulls in the movie. And there were scenes that we were laughing at not because it was funny but because it was awkwardly stupid. Luckily I had a great group of guys sitting next to me that that didn’t follow the convention of not talking during the movie. There were some times I was laughing because of this group of guys sitting next were making little comments and well, you can’t recreate that at every showing. Also, since it was a free screening there’s a bit of the “well it’s a free showing and since I didn’t pay for it I’m not as invested in it, demanding that it’s up to my standards of what funny is”.

If I were in charge, I would suggest going back and editing this movie. This is what I think would help make it even better:

Establish location in the beginning – We need to know that this is Idaho. I shouldn’t have to read a synopsis of the film to know where it takes place. It’s not clear in the beginning. To me it looks like the mountains in California. Reason that we need to know where we are is that we’re questioning what year this is. Is it the 80’s? If we think that then we’re nit-picking at what is wrong with the movie: Glamour Shots weren’t popular until the 90’s, the ring tones are too modern, and the Internet was still in it’s baby stages, no one used the word cyberspace, went in chat rooms or bought things online. Also the chicken farm and milk testing scenes then make sense. If we’re supposed to not know, well, it doesn’t work. Establishing that it’s Idaho explains everything, because Idaho is perceived by the general public as being completely backassward.

What is the Story? The central conflict? – We don’t know what to root for until we know that the kid’s interested in the girl and even then we lose that somewhere in the middle. We start getting concerned about the presidential race and the girl kinda takes a back seat. I would have liked to have seen just a bit more of her. If it’s not the girl, then I’ve left that theater not really knowing what this story is about.

What’s his Internal Conflict? – What is going on in this kid’s head? Yes we’ve all known this kid when we were in school and maybe we were him in some ways. Hell, we certainly laugh at times because some of us have done things that he’s doing – “My girlfriend is a model and can’t make it to the dance” However, there are times, mainly in the beginning, I was asking “is it that the actor can’t act, or is the character supposed to be this way.” I know that in some ways we’re not supposed to understand this kid, but we should know what’s motivating him? Could be solved with speeding up the pacing or adding voiceover if you must.

Speed up the Pacing – The beginning needs to be cut down. Although there are a number of very funny and cute scenes in there, the story doesn’t really seems to start until we’re concerned about the boys getting dates for the dance. You could take some of those funny little scenes and move them elsewhere in the movie. Loved having the 80s music at the dance, but for the length of the movie cut the dance scene is just a tad. Also, I left the movie not really remembering what happened in the beginning.

Cow Shooting Scene – Loved it. This is one of those great little random scenes in the beginning that could be moved elsewhere in the film. Juxtapose it with the milk tasting scene later on in the film. However you can see fishing line attached to the rifle. Breaks the suspension of disbelief.

Too many characters – There’s a bit of a theme in my comments that I can’t remember characters. Shows that perhaps there are too many, audience attention is divided. Could have combined some.

Summer – Played by Hillary Duff’s sister, Hailey, we need to hate her more. Just because she’s the popular girl is not enough of a reason to hate her. I would have had her be the one that is made to go to the dance with Napoleon. Combining characters many times can fix a story.

Summer’s boyfriend – We should see more of him. I would have combined this character with all the other school bullies. It makes us hate him and hate Summer even more because she’s dating him.

Rex the karate guy – By the time Napoleon’s Uncle Rico was in Rex’s girlfriends house towards the end of the movie, I had forgotten about Rex and that she was Rex’s girlfriend. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t remember how she was connected to other people in the movie. Probably if you speed up the pacing then it isn’t an issue. Definitely keep it in. We want to see Rico get beat up.

Uncle Rico – We hate this guy. I don’t feel sorry for him. He’s a bastard of an uncle to Napoleon. So why have him find his soul mate at the end.? Who cares! He deserves to be alone for being such a jerk to Napoleon and screwing up his love life. And who is that woman that pulls up on her bike? She’s in the middle of nowhere and there’s a loner-guy living in his van, throwing footballs at a camera? No normal, nice looking woman would go anywhere near him.

Pedro – The Napoleon/Pedro friendship was true to life. When thrown into an awkward situation (being in high school and an outcast) with someone else, you usually become friends with that person out of convenience, and it was what you’d expect a typical teenage boys’ friendship would be.

Pedro’s relatives – loved these guys in the car. I would have liked to have seen more instances of their “protection services”. They’re thrown in there at one point and then forgotten about until the family picnic where we see them in the background.

Ending – Napoleon’s dance skit on stage – we loved it, felt embarrassed for him, rooted for him, were amazed that he could dance that way, and proud that he got them all on their feet (with help from the girl he likes). The last scene is perfect the way it is, and it’s probably due to the Mormon influence here. Do not change it. Do not have Napoleon and the girl kiss. (I can’t remember her name, which says to me she’s not in it enough). I could see MTV(the producers) wanting to change it.

Music – There needs to be more mood/background music. There’s so much feeling that music can add to a film. I liked the instrumental soundtrack and would have liked to have heard it fill in some of the slower scenes . Might have helped me connect to the film more.

Tina – Did he still feed the llama throughout this time period? We don’t see that he still has to take care of her. Somewhere in the back of my head I’m thinking, “Did he starve the llama?”

I can see this film becoming a cult favorite mainly because it’s a stupid story told in a quirky way. But imagine what the Hesses could have accomplished if they just stayed true to the story


A Protest of One

In this week’s Metro, the Fly had a brief write up about someone who’s placing hoods on the Rodin statues at Stanford and writing “Rumsfeld was here” in chalk on the ground. A project design grad student, Steve Bishop, was able to snaps some photos of the hooded Rodin statues before the Cantor Arts Center museum staff dehooded them. My favorite quote from the article is from Bishop, “To me, that’s kind of ironic to worry about the statues and not the people at Abu Gharib.”

Sadly I have not heard about this protest in any of the media around here besides some footnote in the local papers. It would be interesting if any of the mainstream media picked this up. However, they’ve all moved on to a new controversial topic: the price of gas.

Picture of the hooded Rodin statues at Stanford
Link to Article about the Protest of One – you have to scroll to the bottom of the page.


Write Better!

Think you have an excellent grasp on the English language? Do you question the grammar of your copywriter? Are you an engineer or programmer who insists that you can write better than your technical writer? Well sir, I challenge thee to a English contest!

You have 1 month to put your money (5 bucks) where your mouth is. Point-to-Point, a publisher/language school/tour company based in Ottawa, is inviting all native English speakers to a Language Contest. The prize is a copy for The Oxford Atlas and bragging rights of course.

At first glance of the text there are a myriad of mistakes that jump off the screen, however I know that they’ve laid a number of hidden landmines for the language police. The results and corrections will be posted on September 30th.

While I’m on the subject of writing better, will people stop using crutch words please? The best of us use them. The Bush speechwriter cannot stop using “embolden”, not that I would consider this speechwriter one of the best writers out there. I’m reading through best-selling author Anne Perry’s Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series right now. She’s stuck on describing gas street lamps and insists on repeatedly calling them moons. I’m guilty of crutch words myself. Whenever you write on one topic/genre long enough you’re bound to have words that you use when you can’t find new ones that would better describe what you’re talking about. It makes your writing go faster, and in all honesty, it is the easy way out.

One more thing about writing better. Would “comedic” screenwriters *please* stop using that stupid ESP/ESPN joke? It was funny the first time I heard it back on the 80’s sitcom Perfect Strangers. It was funny because Balki didn’t have a great command of English, he was new to American culture and didn’t know what ESPN was, and ESPN had recently launched under those initials that don’t mean anything. It’s about 20 years later, we all know what ESPN is, the joke’s not funny anymore. And when it’s comes to making a ditzy blonde look dumb, there are far funnier, contempory jokes to use.