The benevolent deception of fake progress bars

Kaveh Waddell, writing for The Atlantic, on how some programs like TurboTax use fake progress bars in their UIs:

It’s not because TurboTax delights in messing with its clients. Instead, the site’s artificial wait times are an example of what Eytan Adar, a professor of information and computer science at the University of Michigan, calls “benevolent deception.” In a paper he published in 2013 with a pair of Microsoft researchers, Adar described a wide range of design decisions that trick their users—but end up leaving them better off.

Benevolent deceptions can hide uncertainty (like when Netflix automatically loads default recommendations if it doesn’t have the bandwidth to serve personalized ones), mask system hiccups to smooth out a user’s experience (like when a progress bar grows at a consistent rate, even if the process it’s visualizing is stuttering), or help people get used to a new form of technology (like the artificial static that Skype plays during quiet moments in a conversation to convince users the call hasn’t been dropped).

From my experience with TurboTax, the fake progress bars work. If “checking my taxes” was instantaneous, it’d probably feel way less satisfying, and I’d be more doubtful that the software was functioning correctly. That being said, as Waddell points out at the article’s end, these positive feelings can also have some insidious effects, like making the software seem more complicated and valuable than it truly is.

Twitter Thread of the Day: Zeynep Tufekci on “Liberal Outrage”

I spend a lot of time on Twitter and I see tons of amazing dialogue and reflections. Twitter Thread of the Day is a feature on my blog where I’ll try to share one thread that was particularly interesting, smart, moving, or impactful for me.

Today’s TTOTD comes from Zeynep Tufecki, a scholar whose work I’ve admired for quite awhile. In the wake of a conservative personality’s book getting canceled and his speaking invitation at CPAC getting rescinded, Tufecki tweeted some trenchant insights about the forces that are really responsible for this. It’s not liberal outrage.

[Note: If you’re ever featured here and don’t want to be, feel free to get in touch with me via email at davechen(AT)davechen(DOT)net]

The nightmare of the Peggy Couch from West Elm

I don’t usually blog about furniture here, but this post by Anna Hezel at The Awl about the Peggy Couch from West Elm really got to me:

Around when the throw pillows finally arrived, the couch began to disintegrate in small ways. We would scooch across a cushion at the wrong angle, and a button would pop off, leaving a fraying hole behind. We would lean back slightly too far, and all of the cushions would shift forward and over the edge of the couch in unison. As soon as one button had fallen off of our couch, it was like a spigot had been turned, allowing all of the other buttons to fall off, too. I emailed customer service and asked if this was normal. They sent me a button-repair kit, indicating that this probably happens a lot. The kit was backordered, so it arrived two full months later and contained a wooden dowel, two buttons, and some directions that didn’t make sense. One direction was to “Hold the cushion properly and make sure the pointed end of the stick is all the way through, until you can see both ends of the stick on each side of the cushion.” I tried in earnest to follow the directions, but the wooden dowel would not fit into the buttonholes, and the entire exercise left me with fewer buttons than I started with.

Every component of this story is nuts, from the fleet of disaffected Peggy purchasers out there trying to warn people against this couch to the awful repair kit that West Elm sends out for people having problems. Most importantly: West Elm says the couch is supposed to last 1-3 years with light use. That is an insultingly short period of time, and not a meaningful upgrade from, say, an IKEA couch. In fact, it may actually be worse despite being more expensive.

I have friends who have had bad experiences at West Elm. After reading this article and taking that into account, I can’t imagine wanting to shop there for any expensive furniture. Instead, if you really want something that’s a big improvement over Craigslist/IKEA, I’d recommend a store like Room and Board. IKEA’s high end has also improved significantly over the years, and may be worth investigating.

Update: The Peggy Couch has now apparently been removed from West Elm’s site:

Pizza supply chain management is difficult

Imagine working at Pizza Hut and being told you need to learn how to make a heart-shaped pizza for just the span of a few days. It would probably seem like a significant imposition on your skillset without very much reward. Now multiply that feeling by 10,000 and you know how pizza franchise workers all around the country felt this week for Valentine’s Day.

The results speak for themselves. Deadspin has a round-up of heart-shaped pizza disasters from this week. A few of the best ones follow:

The stupefying odds

A spectacular data visualization by The Pudding shows how difficult it is for a band to break out and make it big:

The vast majority of bands never do make it. Acts break up, give up or decide they have other things they want to do with their lives.

For every Chance the Rapper there are thousands of rappers that never play a show with more than a couple hundred people. For every Lake Street Dive, there are hundreds of promising bands that break up because they lost on their members.

To see the NYC concert trajectory of different bands, below you can search for any of the 3,000 bands that played a show in 2013, and at least one more show from 2014 to 2016. Perhaps some of them are on their way to making it, and it just hasn’t happened yet.

How to shoot in a hall of mirrors

[This post contains some very minor plot info from John Wick 2]

Last fall Spike Jonze released a new ad for KENZO fragrance with actress Margaret Qualley:

One of the most spectacular sequences in this ad takes place around 1:50 in, when Margaret dances in front of a hall of mirrors. As the camera does precise, gorgeous movements around her, you never once glimpse a reflection of the rig that the filmmakers are using.

Ian Failes at Inverse has a great explanation of how this was achieved. According to VFX supervisor Janelle Croshaw:

Doron Kipper and Jesse James Chisolm (from Digital Domain) spent hours surveying the mirrored staircase. They used tiny pieces of tape on the mirrors to capture the points needed. Lots and lots of panoramas and high dynamic range images (HDRIs) were taken. During the shoot a clean plate was captured with the Technocrane without Margaret and then the Technocrane was cleared out and a clean plate was captured with a handheld cam. Spike and team were super cooperative in clearing the frame for as long as we needed which was very cool considering those mirrors pretty much reflected two whole floors of the Dorothy Chandler theater.

All of the data collected enabled us to build an environment in compositing software Nuke and also achieve a camera track usable for projections (where the live action footage is ‘projected’ onto a CG version of the environment to enable camera movement). The tracking geometry was mirrored to represent the reflections in the mirror and that mirrored geometry was used to muscle through the matchmove. It wasn’t easy and Jim Moorhead, our matchmove artist, put so much care in to this shot. In the end there was a lot of hand painted clean-up and the shot was split amongst two companies and multiple artists. Artist Rob Fitzsimmons became the keeper of the shot, managing the paint patches and ensuring the quality level was kept to the highest standards. His perfectionism and strong eye made the shot as seamless as it is.

This video came to mind for me recently because I just saw John Wick 2, which has an even more impressive sequence that takes place in a room full of mirrors. I’m not sure whether similar techniques were used, but director Chad Stahelski does describe his process briefly in an interview with Movieweb.

A few thoughts on the ‘Legion’ season premiere

Noah Hawley’s new show Legion premiered on FX last night. Based on the X-Men character created by Chris Claremont and Bill SienkiewiczLegion tells the story of David Haller, one of the most powerful mutants ever, with formidable telekinetic powers. In the show, he also struggles from paranoid schizophrenia.

Overall, I thought this was a really bold debut, and am interested to see how they’ll develop this character and story further. A few observations:

  • The look of this show is incredible. The production design, the set pieces, the camera movements — it has all the trappings of a prestige drama, even though it’s a TV show about a lesser known X-Men character.
  • That being said, some of the visual effects are hit or miss, like the final escape sequence, which had some moments that honestly looked unfinished.
  • Like The Usual Suspects, this episode had two tropes that don’t usually go well together: The Unreliable Narrator and The Non-Linear Story. I think they barely pulled it off (which is impressive, given the immense level of difficulty)
  • Dan Stevens is almost completely unrecognizable in the titular role. From his physique all the way to his nervous tics, he’s made an amazing transformation.
  • I really loved the way they deal with the concept of a mutant who wasn’t aware of how powerful he was. The idea of his captors racing against the clock to kill/threaten him before he could use his powers against him was well explained and executed.
  • The concept of a mutant being able to get projected into someone’s memory is pretty interesting. Very Eternal Sunshines of the Spotless Mind-esque.
  • Using pools and electricity to stop powerful beings never works well (see also: It Follows)

I also recorded a few thoughts on Periscope if you want to see/hear me discuss it.

This story will break your heart

Hailey Branson-Potts has a story at the LATimes that will wreck your soul: a profile of Mohamed Bzeek, a Muslim in LA who takes in foster children with terminal illnesses:

The children were going to die. Mohamed Bzeek knew that. But in his more than two decades as a foster father, he took them in anyway — the sickest of the sick in Los Angeles County’s sprawling foster care system. He has buried about 10 children. Some died in his arms.

Now, Bzeek spends long days and sleepless nights caring for a bedridden 6-year-old foster girl with a rare brain defect. She’s blind and deaf. She has daily seizures. Her arms and legs are paralyzed.

Of the 35,000 children monitored by the county’s Department of Children and Family Services, there are about 600 children at any given time who fall under the care of the department’s Medical Case Management Services, which serves those with the most severe medical needs, said Rosella Yousef, an assistant regional administrator for the unit. There is a dire need for foster parents to care for such children.

And there is only one person like Bzeek.

Being a foster parent is something I’ve considered over the years, but it must take a special kind of person to repeatedly be a foster parent for children who are terminally ill. The willingness to endure the psychological toll of caring for these children, and still have the wherewithal to welcome new in new ones, time after time. It is unimaginable.

God bless people like Bzeek.

Trump’s border wall will be horrible for the planet

A new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates the environmental destruction Trump’s proposed border wall will wreak upon the planet:

A 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) wall would require an estimated 275 million cubic feet of concrete. It would release as much as 1.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to Christoph Meinrenken, an associate research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. That’s more than the annual emissions from every home in Pittsburgh.

That’s just for the raw materials alone. This is to say nothing of all the machinery that will be required to put it there, as well as the displacement of indigenous creatures and associated damage.

For a great visualization of the madness, check out this short film from The Intercept that shows just how much ground there is to cover.

Women only said 27% of the words in the top 10 films of 2016

Amber Thomas, writing for freecodecamp, about seeing Rogue One:

I went into the movie theater expecting to see men and women fighting side by side. I left feeling certain that I could count every female character from the movie on one hand. While Jyn was the main character, I was profoundly aware that she was often the only woman in any scene.

It felt strangely familiar to have a lead female character be so outnumbered. Then I realized that Jyn and Princess Leia suffered the same inequality 39 years apart. I was overwhelmed with a need to know exactly how female representation in Star Wars movies has changed. But it seemed unfair to compare movies made today with movies made decades ago. So instead, I decided to look for female equality across the Top 10 Worldwide Highest Grossing Films of 2016.

The whole blog post is worth reading, as her methodology is fascinating (not to mention the findings).

The story of your life

Tell it often, and tell it to yourself and to people:

Organizing the past into a narrative isn’t just a way to understand the self, but also to attempt to predict the future. Which is interesting, because the storytelling device that seems most incompatible with the realities of actual life is foreshadowing. Metaphors, sure. As college literature class discussion sections taught me, you can see anything as a metaphor if you try hard enough. Motifs, definitely. Even if you’re living your life as randomly as possible, enough things will happen that, like monkeys with typewriters, patterns will start to emerge.

The dating crisis in two religions

Jon Birger establishes that it’s religious demographics, not values, that are upending assumptions about marriage:

Multiple studies show that college-educated Americans are increasingly reluctant to marry those lacking a college degree. This bias is having a devastating impact on the dating market for college-educated women. Why? According to 2012 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, there are 5.5 million college-educated women in the U.S. between the ages of 22 and 29 versus 4.1 million such men. That’s four women for every three men. Among college grads age 30 to 39, there are 7.4 million women versus 6.0 million men—five women for every four men.

The Decline of Car Culture

An interesting examination of why car culture is going away for millenials:

Americans drive fewer miles per year — down about 9 percent over the past two decades. The percentage of 19-year-olds with driver’s licenses has dropped from 87 percent two decades ago to 70 percent last year. Most teens now do not get licensed within a year of becoming eligible, according to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

One of the more interesting insights to me: How parenting has changed from an authoritarian institution into how “parents just want to be your friends,” mitigating the need for rebellion.

The Life I Chose

Some lovely reminiscing by Tim Kreider for The New York Times:

I suspect that the way I feel now, at summer’s end, is about how I’ll feel at the end of my life, assuming I have time and mind enough to reflect: bewildered by how unexpectedly everything turned out, regretful about all the things I didn’t get around to, clutching the handful of friends and funny stories I’ve amassed, and wondering where it all went. And I’ll probably still be evading the same truth I’m evading now: that the life I ended up with, much as I complain about it, was pretty much the one I chose. And my dissatisfactions with it are really with my own character, with my hesitation and timidity.

The Perfect Response

Adam Sternbergh from New York magazine takes on the concept of “The Perfect Response”:

[T]he Perfect Response you cheer for and re-post frantically also tends to be one that (a) confirms whatever you already believe and (b) sticks it to someone you already despise. The Perfect Response is, in essence, not a radical new perspective, but simply a person saying a thing you agree with to a person you disagree with. It’s a kind of linguistic record-scratch, a perfectly crafted gotcha that ostensibly stops trolls in their troll-tracks and forces them to deeply reconsider the sad wreckage of their wasted lives. Which means the Perfect Response is also largely a figment of the internet’s imagination.

I agree with most of what Sternbergh writes here – that an actual  “Perfect Response” is essentially so rare as to make its sharing more like an act of wishful thinking.

But I think this headline format has really taken form primarily because of sharing sites like Facebook and Twitter, something that Sternbergh acknowledges. A “Perfect Response” is simply more interesting and attention grabbing than “A Really Good Response” or “An Adequate Response.” Publishers often need to exaggerate to get attention on your News Feed these days.

My question is: What is next in the Internet arms war for attention? What happens when Upworthy-style headlines are so common that all they receive in response is an indifferent shrug?

What ‘Serial’ Was Really About

As most-popular-podcast-of-all-time “Serial” finally comes to a conclusion, there’ve been a lot of pieces written to try and figure out what did this all mean? Many were disappointed with the show for a variety of reasons – this is natural, as any show that is so insanely popular is going to experience intense scrutiny.

One of my favorite writers, Jay Caspain Kang, wrote what was, to me, a fairly unconvincing piece about the show’s “White reporter privilege.” Justine Elias chided the show for being “slack and meandering.

But what I really appreciated was Sarah Larson’s piece for The New Yorker on this topic:

Episode twelve conclusively proved that what we’ve been listening to is not a murder mystery: it’s a deep exploration of the concept of reasonable doubt, and therefore an exposé, if unwittingly so, of the terrible flaws in our justice system. Those among us who deign to be jurors, and don’t try to wriggle out of jury duty, too often don’t understand reasonable doubt, or can’t convince fellow-jurors about what it truly means. We convict people who haven’t been proved guilty because we feel that they are guilty. We feel that they’re guilty in part because they’re sitting in a courtroom having been accused of a terrible crime. In cases like this, the burden often ends up on proving the accused’s innocence—not innocent until proven guilty. And Adnan Syed is just the tip of the iceberg.

Even if the show doesn’t accomplish anything in the legal case of Adnan Syed, and even despite its other potential flaws, “Serial” has highlighted some of the systemic flaws in our justice system to an audience of millions of people. For that reason alone, it deserves our praise.

It’s easy to be great, it’s hard to be good

I recently went to see Penn and Teller at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle. I’ve been a huge fan of them for decades, and saw their show live in Las Vegas about a year ago, so I was excited to check them out locally.

The show was delightful, although they did about 80% of the same tricks that I’ve seen them on TV/YouTube and in Vegas. Later, I got in the mood to do some more reading on them and happened upon this interview they did awhile back for Reddit. In it, they’re asked by a fan whether they ever do any tricks that have taxed them in terms of technical precision.

Penn refers to a section from Steve Martin’s book, Born Standing Up:

I learned a lesson: It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.

For Penn and Teller, this means they can’t do anything that’s physically taxing or extraordinary, because they do their show five nights a week. They can’t be on the “razor’s edge” of skill because there can’t be a risk that they’ll be unable to reproduce their act thousands upon thousands of times. What a profound way to look at things – you don’t need to be incredible; just pretty good, all the time.

So they’re good, but they’re not great. And that’s actually the bigger challenge.