2010 in review

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Below is what WordPress.com had to say about my blog for 2010.  I admit I see no rhyme or reason to which posts are more popular than others, and I wonder whether it’s the writing or just the topic that seems to make for a successful post. Thankfully, I don’t have to depend on this for a living, because obviously I still have a lot to learn.

Still, I certainly appreciate your readership!

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Calvetica: weird name – sweeeet calendar

the calvetica logo
calvetica: simplicity and style in spades.

Rarely do I find software that is so wonderfully balanced between form and function that it becomes an instant favorite of mine. Recently, I’ve found three. Dropbox, which I’ve already written about, was first.  The second was Burstn.  Calvetica, an iPhone calendar, is the third such app.  If you use an iPhone and you’re looking for an amazing calendar, I think you’re search ends with calvetica.

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A case of superior interaction design

dropbox logo
Dropbox gives great interaction.

Dropbox is a free software app that provides a popular service: backing up and sharing files via the web.  It’s not the only such service provider, but it does seem to be taking the web by storm.  I believe it’s because it has a superior interaction design.

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An iPad Journey: part 1

I love my iPad
I love my iPad

I have bought an iPad. For a guy like me, who remembers with fondness using BSD 4.1 Unix on a PDP-11 that stood three feet tall and ran on a huge 2 MB of RAM and booted off of 8 inch floppy disks, the notion of a device the size of a small book with 64 GB in it that can do – if Apple is to be believed – anything, is a bit of a stretch. Still, the iPad presents me unique opportunities.  I thought it would be interesting to track my experiences with my new toy, from a designerly point of view. (UPDATED 21 August 2010)

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FocusTodo: AutoFocus for the iPhone

FocusTodo is for those who dislike GTD.

AutoFocus is a minimalist time management system by Mark Forster.  It certainly has its merits, especially if you find that time management systems like Getting Things Done (GTD) are too complicated.  While there’s all kinds of GTD apps for the iPhone, only recently have apps based on AutoFocus started to appear.  A very interesting AutoFocus app is FocusTodo (n.b. the website seems nearly entirely in Japanese) by Syncreticworks.

I’m going to do a short review of FocusTodo and suggest some possible improvements.  It’s a pretty cool app anyways, and I think that AutoFocus purists in particular will really appreciate it.

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Decision making on the iPhone

iDecide+ Logo
iDecide how to decide

Sometimes it’s hard to make decisions. In my experience, a hard decision is one that involves multiple criteria the relative importance of which aren’t particularly clear. There exist methods to help you make such decisions. One of them has been implemented in an iPhone app called iDecide+. So I thought I would write about decision making, and briefly review the app, at the same time.

Consider a simple example: taking a vacation. You would probably want to spend as little money while having as much fun (however you define “fun”) as possible. But there’s more to it. You might want to go somewhere you’ve never been. You might prefer to distinguish between the costs of travel versus the costs of activities (beer, sightseeing, souvenirs, nightclubs, whatever). You might want to go somewhere with a particular climate. These are some of the criteria that would help you decide which vacation is probably the best for you.  And these are just some of the possibilities; there are many others.

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A Cool Wallet

My Wallet
My Big Skinny Wallet

Good design can show up anywhere, and it deserves to be pointed out. I recently stumbled across a product that was a bit of a revelation for me: the Big Skinny wallet.

Okay; maybe my OCD is showing, but I have for years searched for the perfect wallet. I don’t carry much in my wallet, but it always seemed to me that whatever wallet I used was just the wrong size.  Or too complicated, or too weird, or too expensive.

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Put Things Off: Great Potential; Needs Work

PTO icon
PTO: will be cool someday

To-do apps for the iPhone are a dime a dozen. So when one comes along that goes about things differently, it’s worth a closer look. Put Things Off, by spiffingapps.com is that kind of app.

PTO is a very simple task manager, more suited to the AutoFocus crowd than the GTD folks. (If you’re already lost, try reading this.)  But it goes about things in a rather novel way: rather than emphasizing the need to do things, PTO makes it easy to, well, just put things off. Each task can be deferred by a fixed amount of time with just one tap. The period to which tasks are put off can be changed in the app’s settings.

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Getting Things Done vs AutoFocus: A Preliminary Comparison

tempus fugit
tempus fugit

Getting Things Done (GTD) is  David Allen’s blockbuster time management approach.  AutoFocus (AF) is Mark Forster’s method for staying organized, which is gaining popularity quite quickly.  Though they have they same goal, I’ve not seen two more dissimilar ways of achieving it.  As I try to keep myself organized – and (no surprise) doubtless end up designing my own time management system – researching what’s available is an important part of the process.  And while this is neither an exhaustive nor an authoritative comparison, it has been beneficial in my own thinking.  So I thought I’d share.

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Defying Gravity: a great show on the verge of extinction

A cool show that deserves a chance.
A cool show that deserves a chance.

It really pisses me off when good TV shows don’t get a chance to succeed just because they’re not immediately monster hits. Firefly is the classic example. The new kid on the (chopping) block is Defying Gravity, the new age, sci-fi, high-tech adventure show by the people who brought us Grey’s Anatomy. The show suffers poor ratings and has been teetering at the edge of cancellation for weeks now.  I say: so what?  This is not The Bachelor, or Oprah, or any other of the sad offerings on television these days that qualify fully as opiate for the masses.  This is an intelligent show that requires patience and attention.  It has things to say, and the networks need to give it time to say ’em.

The show was apparently pitched as Grey’s Anatomy In Space. Granted that sounds stunningly dumb, and I can understand how people might run away screaming from that, but this ridiculously trite sound bite hides a lot of pretty great stuff.

Defying Gravity is the story of the eight international astronauts who embark on a six year journey on a very well designed spaceship Antares, to five planets in our solar system. The show takes place about 50 years in the future.  The eight astronauts – four men and four women – are to carry out a variety of scientific experiments – or so we think. Weird stuff is going on. Two of the astronauts are suddenly replaced just before launch because they both develop identical heart defects that disqualify them from the program, defects that usually take decades to develop.  Then there’s something called Beta which seems to be influencing decisions by the administration and the government, urging them in mysterious ways to run the $10 trillion space mission according to its wishes, or needs.

The first eight episodes establish the characters of the astronauts, and of some of the ground crew at Mission Control, while also establishing the societal and technological background of life in the 2050’s.  It becomes quickly clear that this isn’t Star Wars with its classic stereotypical characters, or Battlestar Galactica, with its tainted, comprehensively dysfunctional crew.  This is very strictly a show about clean, intelligent, reasonable, but flawed, people.  Their problems are not of transgalactic significance to anyone but themselves.  This is the key juxtaposition of science fiction: regular folks in irregular situations.  This amplifies the actions and choices of the characters, so that the audience members are made more aware of the nuances of the actions and choices that they themselves take every day.  As such, the more normal the characters, the better – so that the audience can relate to them better, and thus “get into” the show, or film, or book.

This is, of course, not to everyone’s liking.  Many people expect science fiction to involve a lot of fairly typical adventure.  The Stargate franchise is a great example of this.  Neither high art nor cheesy space opera, the Stargate programs finds a nice balance between big space battles, nerdy humour, sundry battles of wits, and the occasional romantic moment.  Not perfect as any one thing, but with enough of each to keep many people happy for many years.

Defying Gravity, on the other hand, is more like – and I’m not sure I believe I’m writing this – Grey’s Anatomy.  It uses a rather specialized and respected situation (doctors working in a hospital) to study how people react to peculiar situations.  The basic change in Defying Gravity is just the use of astronauts instead of doctors.  Some might say it’s not imaginative.  And they’d be wrong.  There’s only so much you can do with one situation; there’s no reason to have just Grey’s Anatomy, when you can have another venue to get some points across better.

Of course, most people lack either the brains, stamina, or character to watch eight episodes of a show intended to just set up a story.

So, by the time episode #9 hit the air, the show was teetering on the edge of oblivion.  There were several articles announcing the show’s cancellation, which were picked up and repeated ad nauseam by other news services, and eventually a few articles (such as this one) about an announcement from ABC, its “home network,” saying that the show had not been cancelled, but just rescheduled.  Episode #9 was the last one shown on ABC (as of this writing).  In the meantime, Space seems to be continuing to show more episodes.

This is so typical of the networks, and reinforces my conviction that Defying Gravity is being targeted for cancellation: ABC put the show on hold just before showing episode #9, one of the most important episodes so far.  If they’d’ve bothered to watch it, they’d’ve realized that #9, “Eve Ate the Apple,” really changed things.

This episode revealed Beta, obviously some kind of alien life, to both the crew of the Antares, and the viewing public.  At the same time, we get answers to a number of key questions that had been hanging in the air virtually since the first episode.  But like any good mystery, each answer just leads to more questions.  These new questions aren’t at all obvious; the writers don’t just bash us about the head and shoulders with them.  Instead, most are just floated casually, almost as if we’re not meant to notice them (yet).  That’s a sign of good writing: set things up now, so that later we go A-ha! cuz all the clues were there, but subtle enough to not spoil the moment (think, The Sixth Sense).

By the time episode #9 was over, it was evident that the reason for having so much character and story background in the first eight episodes was to prepare the audience for episode #9.  The only way their reactions to such a significant discovery (alien life) make sense is if we know them.  And that’s why they needed all the touch-feely emotion stuff in the first eight episodes: we had to get to know the characters.  Now that the secret of Beta is out, all the characters – who’ve been so carefully developed so far – get to go off in their own directions.

And run off in different directions they do.  Every character has a distinct reaction to Beta, and very reaction is entirely reasonable given that character’s background, ranging from Donner‘s suspicious acceptance, to Nadia‘s hedonistic aversion, to Paula‘s religious zealotry.  I found myself really interested in their reactions, because I’d been on the journey with them and gotten used to how they act and think.  And to see them react gave me pause with regards to my own feelings about the “reveal” of Beta.  It’s wonderful, I think, to watch two characters to whom you’ve become accustomed over time, suddenly have diametrically opposed reactions to something new to them.

It’s surprising that a show that is apparently getting such low ratings is also garnering so much attention from the “thinking public.”  For instance, there’s an interesting exchange at the somewhat oddly named feministing.com.  The first post attempts to excoriate the show’s producers for creating a future world in which abortion and even pregnancy tests are illegal.  The arguments put forward are perfectly reasonable, except that they miss the point of the show, as was carefully pointed out in a rebuttal by James Parriott, who writes for and produces the show.  To summarize, the setting of the show is just that – a setting; the real point of the show is how the characters react to the situations in which they find themselves.

This kind of intelligent, clearly thought out dialogue between educated individuals makes clear that the show did it’s job and got people thinking.  Not like what we get from shows like Survivor: Samoa or Jerry Springer.

It certainly doesn’t help that some “critics” have panned Defying Gravity for no reasons I can fathom.  Case in point: the incredibly stupid review by Mark Whittington at examiner.com.  He appears to be affiliated with the Houston Space News Examiner, whatever that is, so one would expect this twit to have some sense of science.  He seems, however, to have a clue neither of science nor of story-telling.  Here’s a few examples:

  • In reference to sending a human crew to explore the planets, Whittington writes: “That straight away tells one of the lengths the series took to ignore science.”  (He’s referring to the very well-known cost-benefit analyses that show the biggest bang for the buck come from sending robots and probes, rather than humans, to explore the solar system.)  First, the series itself did nothing; if something was done, it was the show’s staff.  Whittington could do with some remedial English instruction.  Second, this indicates the kind of stereotypical close-mindedness that only the dullest humans attribute to scientists.  A real scientist would note the discrepancy and say: I do not know why there is such an apparent contradiction between our best information and the show’s premise; hopefully, this will be explained in some subsequent episodes.
  • He also writes: “This usually consisted of soap opera, personal relationship nonsense, coupled with a mystery involving something called ‘Beta’ and the ‘true purpose’ of the mission. Lots of air time was eaten up with pointless flashbacks to the training regime for our intrepid crew.”  Let’s set aside the machismo oozing from his words.  If he’d bothered to let the show develop enough to explain Beta and the real nature of the mission, he’d’ve understood the role of all that emotional stuff.  The flashbacks are pointless to Whittington, and that’s fine.  But in the grander scheme of things, I would strenuously argue that the flashbacks are a perfectly sensible way of pulling memories of the crew up to the surface to make us share their mental states.  Think about it: how often does something happen to you that reminds you of something else that happened in your past?  That is, you only think of the memory because of what’s happening in the moment.  That’s a flashback.  Using the flashbacks as they did, the show’s writers were trying to show you how the characters were thinking.  For me, this works just fine besides reflecting how people think.  One might wonder if Whittington has never noticed this typical human tendency to call up memories based on current context; in which case, he needs to go discover himself – preferably somewhere far, far away.
  • Near the start of his review, he writes: “Since interplanetary voyages tend to be boring, even when things occasionally go wrong, the show’s writers had to invent improbable things to happen for the time the ship was between worlds.”  And later, he adds that to create a proper space show, the producers should “sit down with a lot of scientists, astronauts, and futurists and plan out what the mission is going to look like, who the crew will be, and what they might find at their destination.”  This pair of statements seem contradictory, because his suggestion for a proper space show would result in a story of, in his own words, very boring interplanetary voyages.  So is he advocating that the only proper space show is a boring space show, or is he just stupid?
  • Whittington writes: “do not pull out the hoary old ‘secret conspiracy’ device to try to make things interesting. This too has been done to death.”  Actually, there is no conspiracy in Defying Gravity.  It is apparent that everyone on the ground knew the secret of Beta would get out.  They were only trying to control how the secret got out – for the obvious political reasons: the secret was to be allowed “out” after the election.  And how many times have you heard of important information being withheld before an election?
  • He also writes: “do not rely too much on sex to drive your show.”  Dude, pay attention!  For most of the episodes, the only sex happens in the flashbacks, which cover some five years.  People will have sex.  And most reasonable thinkers understand that if you’re in space for a long time, you’ll need some way to release those natural urges.  In the space-based parts of Defying Gravity, the crew use medicinal patches that dampen the sexual libido.  Ain’t no one gettin’ any aboard the Antares.  Whether the patches work in the long term is anyone’s guess, and, quite frankly, adds a very interesting angle to the show’s potential to explore human behaviour.

So to summarize, Mark Whittington clearly has written a review that is inaccurate and based on some kind of bizarre personal agenda – at least that’s the only explanation I can offer for the stupendous superficiality of his review.

And yet, people read this twaddle.  And then they decide not to watch the show.  Ratings go down.  Another great show risks getting canned.  Everyone suffers.  Thanks for nothin’!

It is possible to find online episodes of Defying Gravity.  I would encourage you to try to watch the first 9 episodes at least, and make up your own mind.

And if you want to do something to try to save the show, you can sign an online petition.  I did, and I hope you do too.