Friday, March 23, 2007

Why do Science Fiction Movies Suck?

Slashdot (which I still occasionally visit) pointed my at an interesting article on MSN (which I never visit unprompted) about why SF has such a poor image and why serious writers and film makers baulk at being classified as science fiction (or, worse, "sci fi").

Two word summary: George Lucas.

Bladerunner is almost the exception that proves the rule.

It's a good action movie that uses ideas from the book on which supposedly it's based as texture (it's at best a story set in the world of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep"). It has some excellent dialog, almost none of which comes from the book.

Oddly enough, Philip K. Dick is pretty much the most filmed science fiction author, and every one of his books, including Bladerunner, ends up being an action movie, despite the fact that none of his books even remotely resemble something that might be made into an action movie.

Dick's protagonists are usually flawed and weak observers, buffeted by events. They're the kind of guy you'd imagine being played by Paul Giamatti or maybe, on a good day, Kevin Spacey, and certainly not Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, or (heaven forfend) Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Bladerunner is perhaps the most faithful rendering of a Dick novel in that the hero of the book is a bounty hunter who shoots androids for a living. That's about the end of the resemblance, since every detail of the book at best is snuck in through a back door. Roy Baty isn't a philosopher poet uber warrior -- he's a victim, gunned down matter-of-factly by a guy who finds it easier to kill people than face his wife's scorn.

The fundamental problem -- as always -- has been economics. SF movies were expensive to make (today, it's almost cheaper to make them since virtual sets are getting to be cheaper than filming on location) and expensive to make means you need a mass audience (including overseas non-English speaking markets) which means dumbing your content down to the lowest common denominator.

It's very heartening to see brilliant, serious movies such as "Pan's Labyrinth" being made today that transcend genre, and use special effects extensively but not gratuitously.

Going back to Bladerunner -- it was made very cheaply for what it is, it was mangled by the studio in an effort to reach a mass audience, and it was a commercial disaster anyway. "Gee," thought the studio execs, "we ought to make more of these."

The one hope for science fiction fans is that Studio Execs will look at Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and think, "maybe it's better to base movies on well-loved books than on something George Lucas pulled out of his ass". More likely they'll produce Eragon. D'oh.

Still, there's always hope.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Copland, Revisited

Vista is turning out to be Microsoft's Copland (rather than its System 8). The thing is that Apple was smart enough not to ship Copland.

Copland was Apple's much vaunted successor to Mac OS that had all this revolutionary stuff under the hood but which didn't actually (a) work or (b) run legacy software. After many delays it was axed.

After Jobs returned to Apple, System 7.6 was gussied up in Copland's default theme and shipped as System 8 (which is what Copland would have been called if it had shipped). Anyone who had been following Apple knew System 8 was little more than System 7.6 with prettier graphics, but on the plus side it worked very well and was extremely compatible with older software.

After Longhorn's many delays and feature purges, it seemed that anything revolutionary about Vista had been scrapped and that what we were in fact getting was Microsoft's "System 8", i.e. their last gen OS dressed up in their cancelled next gen OS's graphics. This seemed like a rational choice: everyone likes XP, and no-one has any choice of OS when they buy a PC anyway, so sell them XP disguised as Vista and cry all the way to the bank.

Unfortunately, Vista seems to have all the vices of a revolutionary OS (it breaks almost everything) and very few of the virtues (it offers almost nothing new*). With the revelation that if you want Photoshop for Vista you'll need to upgrade to CS3 Adobe has basically verified that Vista is less able to run legacy software than Mac OS X was. Another milestone!

So far, the only third-party application I've run under Vista flawlessly is Notepad++ (an open source programmer's text editor) and pure web application (but bear in mind, I've had trouble with every browser, including IE, under Vista). Everything else from games to office software has issues.

Mac OS X -- which was truly revolutionary -- ran 32-bit clean pre system 7 apps flawlessly. (Actually, Apple's switch to Intel was more painful... but nothing compared to Vista.)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

How To Fix Your Current Memory Related Problems *

So I had a Blue Screen of Death (yes they still exist) after, apparently, a memory parity error occurred. (Not Microsoft's fault -- I guess.) This led to my spending 45 minutes on the phone with Dell "gold" tech support.

My memory parity issue may or may not be solved (depending on whether reseating a DIMM helped) but I was told the magic order in which to install all the drivers, and now my laptop's 3D performance is ... well not embarrassing. If I had a Mac mini or an Intel iBook I could comment on its performance versus a GMA 950 but I don't so I can't.

It still (mysteriously) takes about a minute to shut down.

And it still offers Microsoft's equivalent of "instant on", i.e. it pretends to turn on instantly, but then mysteriously locks up for 30s after you log in. (Apparently the process for checking your password requires the entire OS to load, so if you mistype your password you don't find out for about 30s.) So the "instant on" experience is:

1) Open the lid.
2) Greeted by the CONTROL + ALT + DELETE screen.
3) Give machine the three-fingered salute.
4) Type in password, hit enter.
5) Wait 30s while Vista's new blue ring of tedium spins.
6) Maha, my machine is awake. Start trying to interact with it and discover that actually no, it's just decided to display the contents of its graphics buffer or something.
7) 10s later the screen flickers, and becomes *actually* live. Generally displaying one or more "Such and such is not responding" alerts in reaction to my previous 10s of frantic clicking and typing. Typically the application that didn't react is Explorer and the alerts offer to kill it for you. Much as I'd like to kill Windows Explorer, I've found that doing so makes Windows even more useless.

Note that this is a vast improvement over Windows XP's awake from sleep behavior.

a) So far, my Vista laptop always wakes up.
b) If the laptop's lid is closed, opening it wakes it up. (Versus, having to press the power switch. Apparently, waking in response to keyboard or mouse activity is too hard.)

In closing this particular pointless rant, let me just say that the new Aero transitions offer a fascinating combination of:
i) Not being very pretty.
ii) Seeming to have been cut down from longer, but presumably more annoying, transitions (so that -- for example -- the window "grow in" and "shrink away" animations seem clipped).
iii) Getting in one's way.

I suppose that if I wanted to somehow put a positive spin on this, I'd call the transitions "understated", but putting understated transitions into Vista is kind of like putting a day-glo painting of Elvis on velvet in a plain black frame.

Footnote: * This was the heading (I believe verbatim) of a slip of paper included in our copy of Master of Magic (the fantasy followup to Master of Orion -- great games by the way. It (correctly in most cases) assumed anyone running Windows 3.x or DOS 3.x-5.x would have memory problems after installing their software.

Vista, Continued

Today, I discovered that FireFox doesn't have Flash installed. So I attempted (unsuccessfully) to install it. Automatic installation failed (FireFox's fault). Manual installation failed (Adobe's fault?). Note that Internet Explorer (rendered unusable by requiring me to type URLs with a leading http://) is running Flash just fine. I thought FireFox was too.

Anyway, so I quit FireFox and try to install Flash again. (I've clicked "Continue" or "Run" or whatever approximately 50x by this point.) Flash's installer is "automatic" in that "you can't fix it yourself" and sometimes manages to spawn hidden windows or, occasionally, to appear to disappear (have no visible presence on screen) and then reappear. Anyway, no Flash in FireFox.

So I launch FireFox and it tells me that it needs to wait for an install to complete, and I should restart. So I do.

Vista takes about 60s to shut down (heck, Tiger takes too long to shut down too) and then I try FireFox again. Same error message.

So I download a new copy of FireFox (more "Continue" "Run" "Yes I really really mean it" B.S.) and it produces a horrible error message saying that it could do something it needed to do. (Definitely blame FireFox.)

So I uninstall FireFox (it's still more-or-less in the same place in the control panel) and attempt to install again.

Oops, when I clicked "Run" rather than "Save" Windows tossed away the installer. It's probably there ... somewhere ... but easier to download a fresh copy (and "Save" it this time).

I run the new installer and ... same error message.

So, I download Opera, which appears to work. (I'm typing this in Opera.) Then I download FireFox -- which installs flawlessly -- but still won't run. It needs to allow a previous installation to complete.



I tried to make a movie (using SnagIt) of the wonderful sequence of dialogs you get when you attempt to do more-or-less anything in Vista but ... get this ... the "Cancel or Allow" system modal dialogs that dim the screen do not appear in screen captures.

Aside from anything else -- I don't think this is sinister, just incompetent -- it means that if you want to create instructional videos for users you can't show them what actually happens without jumping through a lot of hoops (e.g. filming your videos with a camcorder OR mocking up a "Cancel or Allow" dialog and editing your videos in a serious video editing app).

Maybe I just need a more bloody-minded screen capture program (e.g. fraps).


My laptop's video adapter's performance is absolutely abysmal (at least under Vista). Just how abysmal? Blender takes about one second to draw its splash screen (versus instantaneous on my near three year old iBook). Unity's web plugin warns me that I don't have any hardware 3d acceleration (um, supposedly the Quadro is roughly equivalent to a 7300 and far better than an Intel GMA 950). I noticed that the driver is written by Microsoft... Hmmm.

So I dutifully went to NVIDIA's website to download their latest driver and install it. But their installer said I had no compatible hardware.

Double aaaargh.

Footnote: the Dell Latitude 620 I am using has 2GB of RAM, a Core Duo 2.0GHz, and an NVIDIA Quadro NVS 110M (64MB of dedicated RAM + shared). It should run a little slower than my wife's MacBook Pro for everything except 3D (the MacBook has an X1600).

Oops, I predicted the iPhone

I've been going over some of my old blog posts (removing embarrassing typos, failing to remove others) and discovered I had accidentally predicted the iPhone in July 2006 (note that Apple had probably been building the iPhone for a couple of years or more at that point, there were plenty of rumors/patents of touch screen technology, and it was part of my ongoing "datastick" hobby horse).

My Newton iPhone would probably have easily replaceable batteries, an SD card slot, and the camera would point at the user (as an option at least) to allow video conferencing, but that's about it.

The fact is, it's not the feature set that is impressive, it's the UI. And it's the UI which will give Apple a multi-year lead on its competitors (just consider that the virtual keyboard can have a proper shift key).

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

'Wow!' Microsoft has learned nothing about usability in twelve years

Ironically, this is the second time I'm writing this entry. The first attempt to write it involved using IE7 on my new Vista laptop. IE7 helpfully crashed on me losing everything I had written, so here goes attempt numero deux, this time using FireFox on Vista. (I also just downloaded Picasa using FireFox, since it was clicking the Picasa download link that crashed IE, and I wanted to give FireFox its fair chance to crash.)

Back in 1995 I was working as a "Usability Architect" and one of the things I would do was try to minimize keystrokes and clicks for users performing common tasks. Also around this time, Microsoft started pushing Windows (95 or 3.x, can't remember) with an ad showing someone typing a copy command into DOS while announcing that now, with Windows, an operation that previously took dozens of keystrokes could be accomplished with a single click.

So, I counted the number of clicks required to perform this operation (using the "a double-click = 1.5 clicks" metric) and it turned out to be 47. More, in fact, than the number of keystrokes required to perform this same operation.

The reason I am reminded of this is the recent remarks made by some Microsoft apologists (although, surprisingly, not Paul Thurrott) arguing that Apple's ad making fun of Vista's permissions dialogs is unfair, since Mac OS X requires the user to type his/her password in the same situation.

Now let me just make this perfectly clear. I am using Vista for the first time today on a brand new Dell Latitude D620 (nice piece of hardware, by the way; no I didn't pay for it so don't tell me what I should have bought ;-) ), and Apple's ads if anything understate just how dumb, annoying, and ineffectual Vista's permissions dialogs are.

1) Unlike in the ad, the question isn't always phrased the same way, and it's not clear what the unsafe choice is. The ad's annoying security guy is actually more usable and consistent than Vista's permissions dialogs. E.g. sometimes you're asked if you want to allow an action (e.g. when running a program), and sometimes you're asked what to do (e.g. when downloading a file).

2) Unlike in the ad, sometimes you get asked to allow or deny something that isn't clearly an action. E.g. when I was installing a piece of open source software (SciTE) which doesn't have an installer, I got asked to confirm the actions of creating, naming, and selecting a folder in the "Program Files" directory.

Here's a step-by-step breakdown of what happens when I create, rename, and then delete a folder (errrr directory) in "Program Files" under Vista:

I go into "Program Files" (which used to be harder to do!) and then right-click and pick "New | Folder".
1) I am told that this action is denied. Would I like to "Continue" "Skip" or "Cancel"? I continue.
2) Windows needs my permission to continue (system modal!). "Continue" or "Cancel". I continue.

I rename the folder "test".
3) Denied. "Continue" "Skip" or "Cancel". I continue.
4) Permission! "Continue" or "Cancel". I continue.

And then to be tidy I select the folder and press DELETE.
5) Am I sure? "Yes" or "No"? Yes.
6) Denied. "Continue" "Skip" or "Cancel". I continue.
7) Permission! "Continue" or "Cancel". I continue.

So, to create and name a folder in "Program Files" I need to click through four confirmation dialogs.

And might I add that every single one of these dialogs still has the major usability issue that has plagued Windows since version 1? When you create a dialog box to confirm an action -- "delete" say -- instead of asking "Yes" or "No" you should say "Delete" or "Keep File" (say) so that the user doesn't have to read the dialog text every freaking time.

Might I add that I have absolutely no idea what happens if I continue and then cancel or skip. (Edit: actually I tried all the permutations and essentially "skip" and "cancel" have the same effect ... so why have skip at all? Indeed, why have two dialogs to ask the same question ... it's like each dialog is produced by a different team somewhere in Microsoft. It's exactly like that. Funny how a bunch of open source developers can provide a better integrated (and more secure) OS than Windows.)

I'll probably go into more detail on just how badly Vista sucks usability-wise later, but here are some little chesnuts to keep you amused:

1) It appears that IE either won't resolve web addresses unless you've typed in the full "http://..." or takes a random (long) time to do so.

2) A lot of dialogs make Windows modal before they appear. E.g. if you save a picture from IE the "Save" dialog (sheet?) doesn't appear immediately, but the window immediately becomes non-responsive (without visually indicating anything). Lovely.

(Again, inobviously locked up Windows have been a blight on Windows since Windows 95 when "multitasking" was

3) Microsoft still hasn't learned to "ask before the long operation". E.g. when I tried to run a Unity demo (requiring a custom ActiveX control) I get the yellow warning bar in IE, when I ask to install it there's a long pause, then it asks me to "Continue or Cancel", then another long pause and it asks if I want to install the plugin. Putting aside the fact that two of these questions didn't need to be asked, they could all have been asked before downloading the file. The most egregious example of this, of course, is when you install Windows -- but thankfully I didn't have to install Vista on this laptop.

Anyway, a more "realistic" ad might go something like this:

The Mac guy talks, does stuff, and isn't interrupted, but when he tries to throw his cell phone away he's asked whether he's sure and if he is, to provide a password.

The PC guy talks, does stuff, but before each action he is asked a series of differently phrased questions such as "Permission to say bad things about Vista is denied? Continue, Skip, or Cancel." "Continue." The lights go off, a spotlight shines in his face. "Saying bad things about Vista is dangerous. Continue or Cancel?" "Continue". Next, he tries to perform a common operation (e.g. breathe) and is asked "You are attempting to breathe. Run or cancel. If you don't want to have to confirm breathing in future, uncheck this box." Nearly blue in the face, PC unchecks the box, and then is immediately asked "You are attempting to breathe. Run or cancel. If you don't want to have to confirm breathing in future, uncheck this box."

That's right, unchecking that box doesn't work.

"You are coming to a sad realization. Abort, Retry, or Fail."


Let me just quickly say some nice things about Windows Vista.

1) Sleep mode actually appears to work. That's right, I can close my laptop and it goes to sleep, and open it and it wakes up (into a PRESS CONTROL + ALT + DELETE to log in screen -- why why why? Talk about dumb things that have been in Windows forever. It's like wiring your house so that to turn on your lights you have to stick a fork in a power socket. At least it's not "Start | Shut Down" any more, because the "Start" menu is the "shiny fake Aqua Windows button" now).

2) When you make changes to a directory they appear to more-or-less update automatically semi-instantly.

3) I like the way gadgets get a slab of the desktop to live in (versus the way Apple hides all your widgets in their own private Idaho).

4) Windows now has an Expose rip-off! Sure, it's ugly, less interactive, and less useful, but it's there. Ugly because the "pseudo 3d overlapping fanned deck" layout isn't very well done. Less interactive because when you point at a window it doesn't tell you what app it belongs to. And less useful because it doesn't appear to support drag and drop (but then drag and drop has always been barely half-assed in Windows). Once again Microsoft shows that when you rip off someone else's ideas, it really helps to understand them.

Yes, these are back-handed compliments. What did you expect?