The President’s New Face

If you’ve been watching season 4 of Battlestar Galactica then you may have noticed things have changed since last season, and not for the better. No, I’m not talking about the 4 new Cylon models or Lee abandoning the cockpit of his trusty viper. I’m talking about what Laura Roslin, or more correctly, Mary McDonnell has done to her once lovely face.

After watching last night’s episode and then doing a quick image search of the actress for comparison, I think it’s safe to say Mary has caved to Hollywood pressure and “had work done”. You can see in the comparison image that her cheek bones, jaw line and most noticeably her lips have all been altered since last year. The tell-tale mark is the up-turned crease at the edge of her mouth which seems to give her a permanent smile. Unfortunately it reminds me of the butchering that actress Rose McGowan gave herself in early 2007.

It’s sad because I happen to think Ms. McDonnell was one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. She certainly didn’t need to prove anything to us or the establishment by altering her face. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly back in March of 2007, she confesses she had thought about getting a face lift for a long time, but that her husband managed to talk her out of it. Evidently his powers of persuasion aren’t what they used to be because when she appears on BSG now, all I can think is “When the hell did they get a plastic surgeon in space?” Hopefully she’ll turn out to be the final cylon, download and revert to the beautiful Laura we all know and love.

Neal Boortz, Asshat

While I was on my lunch break the other day, I thought I would tune into FM Talk 101.1 and see if I could stomach what Boortz was dishing out, even if just for a little while. It didn’t take long to realize that was a mistake. After bloviating for about 10 minutes on the fair tax, he went into a section where callers who disagreed with him are allowed through the screening process so Boortz can berate them on national radio.

Even before the gentleman came on the air, Boortz made fun of the man because he dared to call the host a hypocrite for his stance on the fair tax. What followed was typical for right-wing conservative radio hosts and a lesson for anyone who thinks they can teach these clowns a lesson by simply making a phone call.

First, the segment was done at 12:56pm right before the hard break, so you knew it wasn’t going to last long. Second, Boortz let the caller get about 20 words out before cutting him off. Literally. Boortz interrupted the caller after he tried to make a very relevant point about just how unfair the supposed “fair tax” was by launching into his “you’ve got to be back up your position with more than just calling me a hypocrite” bit. But as he spoke it was evident that even if the caller wanted to back up his position, he couldn’t because Boortz had cut him off over a minute ago. So Boortz continues to “lecture” the caller about how he’s an idiot, asking him questions he can’t respond to and calling him a “closet liberal”, all while he’s talking to dead air.

If radio hosts like Neil Boortz, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingrahm actually had a spine, or the ability to defend their positions publicly, they wouldn’t need to hang up on callers. When presented with well-reasoned arguments they usually resort to tricks like hard breaks, or the covert disconnect.

Thankfully some radio hosts actually listen to their callers and let them get more than 2 words out. These are the good guys and I thank them for being, you know, human. I also admire people who have the guts to call into Boortz and Limbaugh to try and set the record straight, but sadly, most of the time they are just taken back behind the “radio barn” and shot. So the next time you’re thinking about picking up the phone to lecture an asshat, remember the words of Sean Connery in The Untouchables – “Never bring a knife to a gun fight.” Here endeth the lesson.

An Inconvenient Update

This week the excellent TED conference posted a video segment with Al Gore regarding an update to his famous climate crisis slide show. The piece is just about 1/2 hour long and provides updates to several key points made famous in his Academy Award winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Gore gives the latest info regarding warming at the north and south poles, increases in carbon emissions from developing nations and the grassroots campaign to change the hearts and minds of Australians toward Kyoto.

He also focuses on the need to do more than just change light bulbs, and makes a plea to get laws changed. Some parts are a bit overly dramatic for my taste, but I agree with his core tenet. The climate crisis is going to continue to worsen unless people start demanding change, particularly of the presidential candidates. Seeing how much the U.S. depends on gasoline, and how little attention the main stream media has devoted to the topic, it’s easy to see why Al’s upset.

Take time on your lunch break or after work and watch this video. After all, knowledge is power.

For the Love of the Game

When was the last time you played a game of pinball? If you’re anything like me, it’s been years since you plunked quarters into one of those classic arcade contraptions. The plight of the pinball machine is one, that in today’s modern world, has grown more and more familiar. What once captured the money and imagination of players across the country, has become relegated to collector’s garages and played by a small group of enthusiasts who look back on pinball with fond memories through neon colored glasses. The story of pinball’s origins and how one company tried to re-invent it, is being told via a new documentary written, produced and directed by my friend and designer Greg Maletic.

Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball tells the story of the Williams company and their dedicated team of designers who were tasked with nothing less than single-handedly saving the entire pinball industry. The DVD can be ordered via the Tilt homepage, and is a wonderfully produced documentary spanning the entire history of the game. Tilt takes the viewer on a light-hearted and fascinating journey from pinball’s humble beginnings as merely a game of luck, to the industry changing era of classic video games, and the creation of Pinball 2000.

The DVD’s production values are top notch and are marked by retro style graphics (all created in Adobe Illustrator and animated in After Effects), an easy to follow narrative and some of the best music I’ve ever heard written for a documentary by composer Skip Heller. Much more than just “talking heads”, Greg’s film gives special insights into the world of the penny arcade that eventually morphed into the electronic palaces of the 60′s 70′s & 80′s that so many of us spent our childhood in. Watching Tilt, it’s easy to see how much a labor of love this film has been for him. Case in point comes in a scene discussing Baby Pac Man, an unsuccessful fusion of pinball and video games. The director’s audio commentary reveals he was unable to find a functioning Baby Pac Man unit to film, so he decided to animate the entire cabinet in After Effects. An impressive feat to be sure, and one that I would never have realized had I not listened to the commentary. Tilt is full of these kinds of subtle treats which bring both eye candy and visual interest to a subject that some might consider boring.

Over 2 and a half years in the making, Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball, not only serves up an interesting slice of history, but also provides insight into problems that designers face every single day. How do you make something old and familiar, new and fresh? How do talented individuals leverage their skills to create a unique new experience even in the face of tremendous industry pressure? All of these questions, and many more are tackled in Tilt. It’s a fun journey for pinball fans and lay people alike that I highly recommend. Check out the trailer available on the Tilt homepage or via YouTube.

So Say We All

Speaking of podcasts, it seems I’ve taken my first steps into a larger world. Thanks to the group blog post regarding Battlestar Galactica, myself, Jen Segrest and Dave Caolo got together after the BSG season premiere and did a quick audio commentary of the episode. We’re not sure if it will turn into a regular thing just yet, but it sure was fun! The podcasts lasts a mere 13 minutes (ha!) as Dave, Jen and I discuss subjects including our picks of the final cylon models, connections to the original Battlestar Galactica, and Dave’s apparent fear of boxing and deep emotional turmoil.

If you’ve not watched the season premier of Battlestar Galactica season 4 yet, you’ll want to hold off on this until you catch up. Spoilers do not a great podcast make. But if you’ve watched and are in the mood for three geek’s views on all things sci-fi, then give it a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Listen in a browser window here.

Download the podcast here.

Podcast To Oblivion

Summary: The length of some audio podcasts are increasing at an alarming rate. Podcasters should learn to master the fine art of editing or risk losing large portions of their listening audience. I provide some helpful tips to help them avoid pitfalls and offer some anecdotal evidence on the subject.

Even if you read no further than the above summary, you’ll have a pretty good feel for what this post is about, where it’s going and what will be discussed. Unfortunately, this is more than I can say of many of today’s most popular audio podcasts. I’ve noticed a few alarming habits that podcasters are adopting that have put me, and others like myself, off from listening to their content. By writing about these trends, I hope podcast producers will look at the criticism objectively and perhaps find some room for improvement.

“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

Rambling Ratholes

Almost a year ago, I started listening to the excellent Mac-based audio podcast by Leo Laporte and company called MacBreak Weekly. MBW is a “round table” discussion between Leo and a cast of regulars including Merlin Mann, Andy Ihnatko and others. I enjoyed MacBreak Weekly for a long time, until I noticed the length of the broadcast kept creeping up and up. The hosts would often wander off on tangents that often had nothing to do with the subject of the discussion. Leo proudly dubbed these tangents “ratholes” and they even came up with a little musical jingle for the things. They were cute at first, but soon grew annoying. When episode number 70 hit 112 minutes back in December, I had had enough.

The length of MacBreak Weekly episodes has been rising slowly for some time, and I don’t think they even realize it. I love a good 20 minute discussion about Apple IIc’s as much as the next fanboy, but there are limits. Laporte seems to have forgotten how to edit his podcasts and the result are bloated episodes. In addition, TWiT doesn’t even supply an episode summary until a week after its initial broadcast. Podcaster tip: if you can’t be bothered to listen to your own content and post a detailed summary of what you’ll be talking about for the next 1.5 hours, I can’t be bothered to listen.

“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what other men say in whole books.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Can I Buy Shares of GRUBR?

Another one of my favorite podcasts is The Talk Show with Dan Benjamin and John Gruber of Daring Fireball fame. Like MacBreak Weekly, episodes of The Talk Show have been getting longer. Unlike MacBreak Weekly, the creators of The Talk Show are firm believers in editing, which results in more “cake” and less “frosting”. And although the running length is increasing faster than that of MacBreak Weekly, Benjamin & Gruber haven’t yet reached the dreaded average running length of 1.5 – 2 hours that Laporte and company regularly flirt with.

Dan Benjamin says that they typically record 1.5 to 2x as much material as they need and then edit out all the non-essential bits to arrive at their final running time. They don’t set a time limit for The Talk Show, but they do make a conscious effort to bring listeners the interesting bits and leave the rest on the cutting room floor. This being said, I still think set running times are a good idea. Podcaster tip: It’s much easier for someone to plan to listen to a podcast from week to week when its length is fixed. A great example of this is NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. Each episode is 47 minutes long and so I know exactly where I’ll be when it starts, and when it ends. If you can’t say what you have to say in a set time, consider editing it down or breaking it up into parts.

“If you bring that sentence in for a fitting, I can have it shortened by Wednesday.” ~ Hawkeye Pierce, M*A*S*H

The Butter Zone

So how long should your average audio podcast be? Not surprisingly if you ask a podcast producer they’ll probably tell you “As long as it needs to be.” Unfortunately this attitude often reflects the desires of the creator and not those of the audience. People’s time is limited and in this modern age, attention spans wane. I took an informal survey on Twitter to ask people their thoughts about what was the right length for an audio podcast. Fifty people responded and took the poll. Although the tally can’t be considered scientific by any sense of the word, I believe the results are indicative of your average content consumer. Is it really any wonder that people’s preferred length for a podcast is the same as your average television show? Podcaster tip: When podcasts approach the length of feature films, people start to lose interest. It’s better to break long epics up into short, multiple features.

Another portion of the Twitter poll asked respondents where they listen to podcasts the most. A full 46% of them said “On the go” meaning in their cars, while jogging, riding the subway, etc. Sometimes I load up my iPhone with episodes of The Talk Show and listen to them on my morning drive of about 15 minutes. Until the recent spike in length, I was able to get through one episode of TTS in a single day’s commute, which was just perfect. Indeed, the 2005 U.S. census reported that the average American’s commute time to and from work was 25 minutes. Large cities like New York were a bit higher at 38 minutes, but all were under an hour. I think this fact helps explain the audience’s desire for 30-45 minute podcasts. By nature, people love closure and enjoying a podcast that can be completed in a single commute is a satisfying experience.

“Let me explain. No, there is too much, let me sum up.” ~ Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

To Sum Up

Despite what the creators of podcasts may think, their audience is looking for manageable chunks of auditory content that can be neatly parsed into a daily commute or a walk around the park. Thanks in part to the ever increasing HD sizes of iPods, podcast producers no longer feel restricted by file size, and have a tendency to let their hosts ramble. Unless content creators re-dedicate themselves to producing top-notch, edited podcasts, more and more people will undoubtedly lose interest. When I visit the latest episode of MacBreak Weekly and I spy a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes, it turns me off. The length is too intimidating to even attempt and I just surf away. From one Mac fan to another, I urge Leo and others like him to take the words of Baltasar Gracian to heart – “Good things, when short, are twice as good.”

Hat tip to Craig for his help with the graphing portion of this post. Me bad with spreadsheets. Craig good.

One-Way Street

Let me just say up front that the engineers, programmers and developers I work with are some of the most talented people in the industry. They manage to write software and code few others have the skill to create, and I am often in awe of their abilities. That being said, I’ve recently been reminded of an inequity between designers and programmers which I have to get off my chest.

Last week I watched the excellent video from the C4 developer’s conference with my friend Cabel Sasser of Panic fame called Coda Confidential. Something he said in his presentation struck home. At the 22 minute mark Cabel starts talking about Coda’s “Toolbar of Doom” and the implications the toolbar had on his developers. If you’re not familiar with the story, you can listen to the description of the problem from the C4 video, or check out Cabel’s blog post on the subject. The short version is that Cabel designed Coda’s toolbar to appear a certain way, the way he knew it looked best. But it turned out that designing it this way was hard. Very hard. After trying to bend the Cocoa toolbar implementation to their will, they decided instead to throw in the towel. And when Cabel says “throw in the towel” he means write their own toolbar code. From scratch.

Despite their impressive ability to solve the toolbar design problem, Cabel makes the point that he’s constantly “choosing his battles” between himself and the programmers at Panic. They don’t always have the luxury of writing code from the ground up to solve a particular design problem. They are constantly asking themselves is this particular design decision worth the time and effort it will take to implement? As I know from personal experience, sometimes the answer to that question is unfortunately, “No”. As a co-owner of my company, like Cabel, I’m constantly looking at the “big picture” to determine if a difficult design is worth the time and money required to implement it.

But from a creative point of view, purely as a designer, I still find it frustrating that the ideas and creations I come up don’t always get implemented. Some are considered “too difficult” or “too time consuming” to put into practice and therefore must be abandoned. I consider this to be a double-standard in our industry between designers and developers. As a designer, I’ve almost never told a developer I’m working with that a particular icon, user interface or web design is “too difficult” to implement. In my entire career, I think I’ve said “no” a grand total of 2 or 3 times. And that only happened because someone asked for something physically impossible, like making a 5 letter word legible at 16×16 pixels. I realize the programmers reading this will probably say “that’s because coding is more difficult than designing”. This may or may not be true, but that’s a whole other topic for discussion.

I know that even programmers themselves can’t always create the software or features they dream up, but it seems like they often have “outs” that simply don’t exist for us designers. We’re always expected to push through and solve the problem, while for them, something is either technically not feasible, would take too long to implement, or is simply a bad idea due to poor user behavior. Just once, I’d love to be able to tell a developer who’s asked me to solve a design problem “Nope, it’s too hard. Not gonna happen.”

I know that given enough time and money, pretty much anything is possible, and unfortunately most small software companies are not made of gold. We must therefore attempt to balance our desires as designers with what is best for the success of the product. I also know that the balance between a talented designer and a skilled programmer can transform mediocre titles into outstanding apps. I just wish I had the ability to even the score every now and then. I take solace in the fact that often as designers, we’re usually only limited by our imaginations rather than API’s or function calls. Our relationship may indeed be a one way street, but for developers, it’s often littered with road blocks.