Wednesday, July 08, 2009
Insight into Iran, via Netflix

I've never been to Iran but I have some idea of what it's like thanks to Netflix. There is a large subset [not large enough, imo] of Netflix movies available to watch instantly. You can add any of those to your Instant queue. You have to opt in for the Silverlight experience.

I mentioned previously how I hooked up my new laptop to my HDTV via HDMI cable. I tried the Netflix "watch instantly" feature and found the picture quality good and the experience reasonably effortless.

Bill Scott, UI engineer for Netflix, gave a talk at the Mix 2009 conference on modern user interface conventions. They've tried to make the Netflix navigation experience effortless, although they don't quite succeed.

I'm enjoying his book on Web interaction design patterns. It categorizes and names the conventions you see everywhere on the net, such as drag and drop (he says you have to give users an "invitation to drag" to somehow let users know a thing can be dragged) and he favors direct in-place editing (rather than navigating to another page to change a photograph's title or description as an example).

Designing Web Interfaces
Principles and Patterns for Rich Interactions.

It took a bit of thinking to guess why the wireless connection was sometimes not excellent. I have one of those netbooks I almost always keep on but with the lid closed in what I assumed was a sleep or hibernate mode. I have no technical expertise on this, just a guess, but I think the router is still aware of that wireless Internet connection when the netbook is asleep, so I shut down my netbook when I want to watch a streaming Netflix movie.

I watched the animated movie Persepolis which is a kind of autobiography of a girl growing up during the transition from the Shah to the Islamic Republic. Although I cringe at the amount of smoking (I have a respiratory problem that causes me discomfort at the presence of cigarette smoke), I understood a lot of the family and cultural dynamics of the girl growing up in Iran and sent away to a bittersweet life in France as a young adult before returning home to Iran.

With so many of their citizens under the age of 30, Iran has a generation gap as America did during the 1960s. You get a real sense of the everyday repression of youthful casualness and the ominous presence of the moral guardians patrolling the streets looking for women not dressed modestly enough but also intruding behind closed doors looking for alcohol or responding to pop music.

It shouldn't have come as a total surprise that the election there was fraudulent. I remember watching the Chris Matthews show when he said his catchphrase "tell me something I don't know" to his panel of guests right before the Iranian election. One guest said that despite a recent increase in popularity of the reform candidate, it had already been decided that Achmedinijad (sp?) would be named as the winner. Actually, that show was four years ago, a few weeks before the previous election. You can look it up, Chris.

Friday, July 03, 2009
Highly recommended documentaries

Next Thursday or so, today being July 3, there are two nature documentaries on Animal Planet cable channel worth watching.

I have no pets. I had a dog at five years old they tell me, and I saw a picture once of me and that German Shepherd, but I don't remember it. Our family had a cat once and I like cats.

Have you heard of Christian the lion? Seen the youtube video? Well they did a one-hour documentary film about Christian called "A Lion Called Christian."

If you don't want to wait, or are curious, or have seen the brief clip on youtube, visit this link then click the video to watch lengthy excerpts from the documentary:


You really get a sense of his personality and incredible playfulness. What you don't see are some important missing details that explain the full story of the reunion.

Coincidentally, on the same day and repeated the following Friday (these programs air regularly, so check your local listings as they say if you miss them), is a documentary about Jessica the hippo. It's interesting to watch her open the door and walk around the house. Enough said.

One regular program on the National Geographic Channel that always amazes me is The Dog Whisperer. He is called out to visit people with troubled pets ranging from aggression to fear to quirky idiosyncrasies. I hate to admit it, but my first thought when I started watching the show on each visit was that dog is toast. And the people often say they were sure their dog was going to be the one that Cesar could not help.

For dogs that are frustrated and not getting enough exercise, Cesar often uses his rollerblades to take the dog for a brisk walk and run and to bond with him. Not only does it wear the dog out a little bit, but, Cesar said, it surprises them that he's faster than them.

I thought to myself skeptically, how does he know they are "surprised"? Then I remembered how easy it is for us to know when a dog is happy by its facial expressions and body movement. And there may be nobody in the world who understands dogs better than Cesar Milan.

But I shouldn't be so amazed at the sociability and bonding between people and animals, especially animals that live in social groups. I once saw a program about dogs that described how the family pet was running alongside their pickup truck and barking furiously during a dust storm along the farm's road. They wondered what was wrong with him. Finally, in desperation, the dog ran ahead of the truck and threw himself in front of it so that they hit him and had to stop. It turned out there was some obstacle in the road or crevice just a few yards ahead that they would have encountered had not old Rusty (I'm just making up a name here) forced them to stop.

So I briefly thought that was an example of a higher intelligence and altruism shown in animals as is often seen when people jump into rivers to save strangers in trouble. But then I realized that we as a species probably favored people who helped their family and neighbors, and this trait could easily be favored over time until it became a common reaction in social species such as people. Compare the way a mama bird will appear to have a broken wing when a predator threatens her young. That behavior must have taken some time to work out until it became instinctive.

Those birds that flew away lived to fly another day. But they didn't have as many offspring.
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