Apr 27 2009

Twitter is bad

I suppose I’m involved in an internet debate with my friend Dan about the merits of twitter. (If you care about the background, see here and then Dan’s post here.)

Off the cuff, my feeling on the subject is basically twofold. 1. I think that people should be spending their time thinking (and then communicating) more deeply, and a trend towards shorter posts, epitomized by twitter’s self-imposed 140 character limit is a step in the wrong direction. And, 2. I think that bidirectional communication (hopefully with analysis) is a more effective (and fulfilling) method of being involved in someone’s life than a constant diary of what they’re doing/reading/watching/etc at the moment.

From my conversations with twitter enthusiasts, there seem to be a few salient points for why one should use twitter:

  1. People are using it to do great things
  2. It’s highly time-sensitive
  3. It’s a great community
  4. All my friends are on it
  5. And, (related to above): it’s an easy way for me to keep up with friends

People are using it to do great things: This isn’t a very inspiring reason to me, as it doesn’t speak at all to the medium of twitter. I guess there are people using it to enhance awareness about a variety of issues in minute 140 character chunks, but just because someone could demonstrate as a proof of concept that smoke signals could be used to “do good things” doesn’t mean that we should all get our firewood out, right?

Time-sensitivity: I’m not sure exactly why people think that twitter is faster than any other service which allows you to post from a cellphone (for instance, WordPress, although I never post to my blog from my phone, I certainly could if “timeliness” were important). But I guess I don’t want that to really be my main issue with this item. I’ve been thinking about this time-sensitivity as a supposed virtue of twitter at length over the last few days and I think there’s something important in the idea of slowing down. The thought of being motivated to stay connected to a constant flow (or barrage) of information that you believe you need right now seems like it might be negative in many respects. People (and the media) like to tout that guy who was arrested in Egypt and got out by virtue of people following his posts. I think it’s important to remember that, that was one guy, on one day, (I think he had like a hundred people even reading his posts), out of what? 5 million users? I argue that the majority of content on twitter is not time-sensitive, nor is the majority of actual events in our lives. Although, I’m sure this won’t resonate with everyone, I for one, am glad that my entire life is not time sensitive. I like to approach my own life with a bit of reflection; hopefully allowing the more important stuff to bubble to the top as I think about it and talk about it. Most of the details that seem “time sensitive” in the moment turn out not to be in the long run.

Great community: If you say so. It’s hard for me to really engage with this in a blog post because generally I need to know what the person means by “community”. This medium isn’t really designed for conversation or discussion, right? It’s a *post* *post* *counterpost* *repost* *post* kind of format right? that’s certainly what I see on the twitter pages I’ve looked at. If ‘community’ loosely defined here is people who post about the same things, or do the same kinds of things on their twitter page, I’m not entirely convinced that there’s merit in such a grouping. Regardless, my sense is that every social network (myspace, facebook, livejournal, youtube, etc) touts to have a great community of users, so I’m really sure what that means.

All my friends are on it: Well, I don’t doubt that, but my sense is that (as I’ve posted previously), you could be having much more enriching and meaningful friendships with them (and your other friends who aren’t on twitter) if you invested a little more in bi-directional communication, the kind with feedback where you each respond to what the other one says instead of making a series of (maybe) related public posts. I also try to communicate in regards to this point that people need to be the change they want to see in the world. I say this because some people who I’ve spoken with almost feel held hostage by their friends, like that they won’t know what’s going on with their friends unless they subscribe to their tweets (or facebook, myspace, etc), because their friends don’t really use email or the telephone anymore to express those kinds of things. I sympathize with this because I’ve certainly felt it in my own life, there’s a tremendous social pressure to join these sites so that people can add you to their friends list or so they don’t have to go through the laborious task of calling/emailing you in order for you to know what’s going on in their lives. I posit though that there really is something gained from holding out for more meaningful interactions and that it’s positive to set that as the baseline for your friends, who knows, they might also feel trapped into the cycle…

It’s an easy way for me to keep up with friends: I think that’s pretty well covered in the last point. It’s not really “keeping up” right?

So those are my thoughts on twitter, please let me know if there’s something important I’ve overlooked.

Nov 27 2008

Methods of communication

I try to avoid posting anything about my day job (and if you’ve read my other posts you’ll know I also try to avoid posting things about the personal goings on in my life, which means the available subject matter for this blog is growing more and more limited ;-)), but insomuch as this is of broader interest I thought I’d post some of my thoughts about it here.

{End disclaimer, thoughts to follow}

I recently implemented instant messaging (IM) software in my office (for those who care, we’re using Spark with private/local jabber server) and am trying to figure out what exactly its place is. There are so many technical tools in the modern workplace, I think it’s a little confusing to people about which method they should use for any given situation.

In my office, for inter-office communication, email (including listserve), IM, phone/voicemail, paper note, and in-person discussion are the most used options, but I think that the selection of which one to do is based primarily on the preference of the initiator and not on the strengths of the medium. I think that my coworkers understand some advantages and disadvantages associated with each (like that I will be displeased with them if they email SSNs around, and nuances of when email is more appropriate than verbal agreement), but I don’t think we have a very developed idea as a department of what will work out best.

I have thought a little about the distinctions between different forms of communication, and I guess that some of that has even spilled over into this blog in posts about myspace, facebook, and other social networking sites, but I don’t really have anything developed enough to apply or recommend to my office.

I feel like it’s slowly coming to a head, because the people that use the IM software only get value from it if the people that they want to talk to (or ask questions of) are logged in, so there’s pressure from that contingent to force everyone to login when they’re at their computer. By force, I just mean that it would be office policy, or that I would change the settings to have it automatically login, and not that I would strap their hands down and eyelids open Clockwork Orange style. Of course there’s resistance from another part of the office that it’s just another way for people to disturb them while they’re focusing, or another expectation on their time.

Thus far, I’ve been fairly agnostic about the issue, telling people that it’s another tool they can use if they want to, but I can tell that people are looking for me to weigh in on what the policy should be.

After the obvious temporal guidance (don’t send a paper note for something you need an immediate response on) there are a few other aspects I’ve considered that I am trying to turn into a more prescriptive framework.

Clarity/mutual understanding is important in any of these, since we’re talking about communication after all. In this respect, I don’t think the playing field is exactly level across all mediums. Clarity will only be assisted by feedback from the person you’re communicating with. Communication in person will provide a much richer set (body language, questions, intonation, etc) on which to determine if the understanding is shared by both parties. IM has some merit for clarity in that it’s better built for dialogue than say email is, but like anything digital-text-based it’s stripping out a lot of information which could be easily communicated in person.

Redundancy is pertinent in that for some forms of communication, the messages are stored permanently and even backed up. I like the idea that if one of our computers died, email would be available from any web-capable computer, and I like the idea even more that if somehow all of our computers died (as in, the whole school’s network died) that all the data could be restored within a few days from backups. This redundancy is one edge that technology has, but for instance IM communications are logged locally, so moving to another computer does not afford you that history.

Metadata/Header information relates to legal sufficiency, but matters in other senses too. It’s good to know the year, date, hour, minute and second of both transmission and receipt of some types of messages and to know exactly where it’s coming from.

Security perhaps I should have put earlier on the list, since the government trend is that this should be the first thing on my mind at all time. It’s of significance since we deal with sensitive information that we know where exactly our communication is going before it reaches the recipient. I like my users to understand that there are a lot of people on (and off) campus that could legitimately, or illegitimately intercept or listen in on their phone calls, emails and voicemails. Since IM is encrypted and never leaves our campus, the transmission is pretty secure, but since it logs in plain text files, it’s really only as good as the computer security is. With physical communications it’s at least easier to understand when/where there are privacy and/or security concerns, but technology can remove that intuition since most people don’t know the whole flow.

Ease of dissemination, particularly in my environment, forwarding and the ability to carbon copy someone are huge assets to what we do and need to be considered in any communication tool.

Addressing/Contact lists How easy is it for me to communicate with someone for the first time, or to recommunicate with someone that I reach only infrequently? Since our email is connected to an LDAP, it automatically looks up people’s email addresses as I type them into the “To” line. Also, our default setup adds email addresses to the contact list if I’ve ever received or sent email to a particular address. In general, I find email to be very quick (and predicative!) at helping me communicate with the person I want to.

Multitasking is somewhat contentious as to how effective it actually is. But that debate aside, there are always times where we’ll have several things going on at once. And some types of communication facilitate this better than others. Depending on the severity and content of the correspondence I have found it to be very helpful to have 4 IM windows open at once and the ability to switch between the conversations quickly.

Searchability/Retrieval is becoming more and more important the more inundated with information we become. Digital text based communications are very good at this, and based on the information that’s stored and the user interface, we may be able to search for patterns that we didn’t immediately realize or recall were there. Email tends to have robust tools available for searching by any number of qualifications, but these could be available via other technical tools as well depending on what you’re using.

Richness of information As I was first thinking about this post I knew that I wanted to mention that my officemate and I frequently communicate via IM even though we’re sitting less than 5 feet away from each other. Part of the motivation for this is the ease with which richer information and multimedia can be communicated. I don’t know if you’ve ever had to give someone a url over the phone, but it’s kind of a pain and prone to error the longer the link gets. Hyperlinks, pictures, videos, sounds, can all be a necessary part of the message. Also, things as easy as an ordered list maybe be easier to present in an email using html formatting than they would be to dictate over the phone or put in an IM.

I drew those characteristics up in a few minutes based on thinking about what is done really well by each of the mediums. I’m sure I left some out and would appreciate comments for other things I should be considering as well.

This whole discussion is similar (although maybe of less significance) in my personal life as I am ofter faced with the decision of whether to send email, text messages, phone calls, or snail mail. For some things there inherent recommendations, but not for everything.

Ok, I fear this may have been the most boring post I will ever write on this blog, but it is something I’ve given thought to and wondered if others had as well.

Apr 14 2008

What am I doing here?

I somewhat like the idea of having post titles that are both vague and meaningful. I could imagine using this post title several different times in different circumstances and having it be appropriate each time.

This time it’s about this blog.

I was having a conversation with my friend Caryn last week about what exactly my intent was with my blog. She had been talking to other friends about online journals and maybe thinking about the prospect for herself. Our discussion quickly resolved to the public/private issue that must face everyone when they first start thinking about publishing their thoughts online. What is the purpose exactly of making a journal that everyone (or an anonymous indefinite number of someones) can read? Clearly it’s not to divulge your most private thoughts and emotions.

As we were talking I started thinking a lot about my beef with places like myspace and facebook and all the other social networking spaces that are prevalent amongst my generation. I guess I worry that the more and more we think of a “friend” as something that happens when you click a link on myspace, the less we will engage in the difficult and constant enterprise that I like to think of as friendship. Maybe I’m a little less worried about my generation, but moreso people of the next generation. I worry that social bonds will be things that form over these social networks and that the traditional, face-to-face form of friendship (and the human bonds that it entails) will become less important.

I should clarify that in theory I don’t have anything against non-traditional relationships. I think that communication over the phone, or over the internet has a lot of benefits; the ability to break down national borders is amazing, and I think even more important is the stripping away of superficiality, in it’s ideal the internet can become a true forum for ideas. I think these facets are great, and when put together in the right mix, I believe that they can lead to great friendships. Unfortunately, I don’t think that these are the types of interactions that are encouraged or facilitated by the current crop of social networking and online self-publishing sites. These sites seem more geared to me at maintaining acquaintances. People you knew in high school, but who weren’t important enough to keep in touch with, people you’ve met a few times, or friends of friends, etc. Of course many people’s real life friends are also their friends in these online arenas, but in my observational experience, it’s rare that the real friendships arise from these online correspondences.

I think it has to do with the way online communication works as opposed to in person communication. When I talk to Caryn I pick up on all kinds of cues she gives off about her relative interest in the subject and about how it impacts her emotionally. Also, there’s a shared goal in the conversation to move it forward and to deal with issues that are interesting to both parties. Immediate feedback is huge. It lets me personalize the content of my thoughts to her, and allows me to learn about her thoughts and interests even when I’m the one talking. When I’ve finished an idea Caryn has incentive to respond or to move the conversation in a new direction (both of which tell me more about her thoughts). With online communication it’s very one sided. You post, maybe people read, in many settings you aren’t sure if people have read what you’ve written because you receive a list of ips, or maybe if you’re lucky someone posts a comment. In some software, you do know which people have brought up your post (but not necessarily read it), even so, you have no idea of how it impacted them if at all.

There’s a false sense of closeness that’s gained from reading what someone else has written. When you’re reading something someone else has written you feel like you’re seeing into their life, as if it was an experience you shared, but from their perspective it’s something that was thrown out into the void, and they’ve no idea where it stuck. Their experiences are something they reflected on after the fact and contemplated into some edited online form. It’s something about them, and not about you and them.

As far as this blog, the conversation made me realize that I’ve kind of lost sight here of what I want to be doing. My intention with this blog is to force myself to think through my ideas and organize them in ways that hopefully make sense to others and invite their input or at least enrich their opinions of the chosen subject. Having said that, I think the posts about my life- the things I’m doing both at work and at home aren’t really what belongs here. I don’t want to foster the sense that people know what’s going on in my life simply from reading this webpage. I don’t want to encourage relationships that are one sided like that. I’m perfectly friendly (although that word does carry a lot of weight with me), and am willing to keep up with you, but for info about the events of my life, I think I’ll just have to encourage people to be my real friends. You know, send me an email, call me sometime, whatever it is, but dialogue and not monologue-monologue.

Oct 3 2007

The day Alex made it big

I’m totally amazed by this:

Google Results Alex Honnold 10/3/07

And not the part that the rest of the normal world is thinking, I mean, yeah sure, sure he climbed two veritably insurmountable rocks without any safety equipment in one day, but I think at the moment I’m possibly even more impressed by his google ranking.

I think google must have tweaked their algorithms quite a bit to hedge things towards current events**, but I’m still impressed by just how fast the relatively common name “Alex Honnold” has resolved to not only the “correct” Alex Honnold for my searches, but also to events that are recent.

I’m lucky to have a very uncommon name and due to that fact alone have been pretty happy with my google ranking. The fact that there are only something like 11 “ofsinks” in the world has helped keep basically all the data when you search “james ofsink” about me (although my dad’s cousin’s law firm now comes as the top hit for “ofsink”, harumph, you’ll get yours cousin jay, you’ll get yours). But, regardless, it’s hard enough getting sites on the net to even point towards me and the things that I want them to about myself, let alone actually having recent information.

My hat’s off to Alex. Oh, and way to go on climbing that rock too.

**For more on google’s algorithm, you should check out this interesting article on nytimes.com

Oct 2 2007

Here’s a job I don’t want

I have a distinct memory of being in the MediaStudio with Braden (link depicts the not-uncommon occurrence of Braden being mobbed by small Japanese children), the first time that anyone ever explained the concept of a mask to me. I remember we were doing some effects for Dichotomy and Braden said something about the movie Gladiator and how some studio interns had to go in after the green screen and do masks to make sure that they were really just getting Russell Crowe and not any of the green screen so that they could apply the background to make it appear as though he was in a Roman Colosseum. I didn’t totally understand the concept, but Braden showed me kind of how they work, although I don’t think we used many for the Dichotomy effects.

Random Gladiator Image
Here’s a random image from Gladiator for those of you who didn’t see it, or don’t care to remember it. (Sorry this image doesn’t even illustrate the point I’m talking about here, since there’s no Russell Crowe standing in front of and super-imposed upon a huge Colosseum audience, but really I did look for a better picture and after wasting twenty minutes on google images looking at the same 6 production stills pushed out over a thousand websites, I decided this one would serve as the representative Gladiator shot.)

Anyways… now it’s six years after Dichotomy and I can’t imagine making effects without using masks. At least in After Effects that is; I haven’t done too much with masks in Final Cut, but let me share my evening with those who are not faint of heart.

So, for the film that Fernando and I are cutting, there’s a fairly significant plot point involving a dump-truck that’s converted to run on SVO (straight veggie oil) and the well-intentioned soul (Ben) who wants to drive it from Portland to New Orleans to help the rebuilding efforts. This was an amazing find back 18 months ago when the film was first beginning to shape up and when we realized that to talk about sustainable building in America in this decade you have to talk about New Orleans.

Here’s a still from the first time that Fernando filmed the SVO truck. This is Ben, Billy and Loren, in Loren’s shop, doing the actual conversion from Diesel to Bio-Diesel/SVO.
Original SVO Truck

Pretty sweet eh? Yeah, it’s got that vibrant color, and it’s huge. The idea was to convert it to run on veggie oil (which for most normal people is a waste product that many restaurants and such will pay you to take away), and then drive to New Orleans serving beignets (New Orleans style pastries) and using the veggie oil and proceeds to then power the drive across the nation.

Anyways, next time we saw the truck, when Fernando was getting in to start the cross country trek, it had been given a paint job, and now was this color…

Final Geaux Nuts Color
(this is a shot of the passenger door, with the Geaux Nuts logo on it).

Not a problem. I actually like the teal color better than the orange. And we got some really great footage from the adventures that Ben and Fernando had with this truck. So now it’s many months later and we’re cutting together the film and realize that the truck and the Geaux Nuts journey will not have as prominent a role as we once thought. More to the point, we’re wondering if it will be too confusing to have the truck originally be bright orange and then without explanation suddenly be teal? We don’t have any footage of it getting painted nor does anyone ever say anything on camera to justify the change. Given that we don’t want to spend time slowing down the narration or the documentation, we wondered if maybe it wouldn’t be easier to just change the color of the truck in that early conversion footage.

Here’s a still of what we thought we’d like to do…
SVO Truck New Colors

I’m just applying a filter to change the orange in the image to the greenish-blue. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple yet as just clicking on a color and telling the computer to switch it for another color.


You’ll notice of course that the orange has all kind of shadows on it and different shades depending on how far or close it is to a light or reflecting surface. The software has no way to know that I only want “the truck” and not all the other slightly orange-ish things in the room. For this kind of thing orange was an unfortunate choice because lots of things are orange-ish. Wood, beige walls, post-its, and most significantly in my case, fleshtones are slightly orange. So when I adjusted the tolerance level on the effect to get all the oranges that exist on the truck, I was also picking up (and thus changing) the colors in our character’s skin.

Here’s what the clip looked like after my first attempt.

Which would have been fine if we were making a sci-fi movie or maybe a Star Trek episode from the seventies, but for our purposes with this particular part of the film, didn’t seem to work. (Although I’m not ruling out a sci-fi/Star-Trek-TOS-episode-sequel to Abode.)

So basically I had to go in and tell the software more specifically where I did and did-not want the effect applied. There are a few ways to do this, you can be liberal with where you want the effect applied and then very specific about the regions where it shouldn’t be applied, or you can do the opposite and be generous about where the effect is applied and build very specific areas that you don’t want it applied to. I decided to apply the effect to nearly the entire screen since the truck was frequently taking up most of the screen, and then mask-off the areas where I didn’t want the effect to be.

It’s uglier than that really because this footage is all hand held and the camera is moving non-uniformly and the subjects are also weird shapes (damn, if only our film was a documentary about squares this would have been so much easier) and moving non-uniformly as well. So I can’t rely on the software to interpolate very well since things are changing from frame to frame in weird ways. So, yes, I had to make a bunch of masks and then keyframe their shape and location nearly every frame.

Here’s a sample of a few of my masks…
Masks to make things un-green

And here’s depressing shot of some of my keyframes for those masks…
Mask Keyframes


I’m largely finished now though and after rendering it, it looks pretty good. If we decide to use a lot of this shot, I’ll still have some more work to do, and there’s some annoying orange-glow by Billy’s hand in a little of the shot, which could be fixed by more extensive keyframing, but for the moment, let’s call it done.

I’m sooo glad I don’t have to be the intern doing forty hours of this a week. Blech.