Archive for category Culture

Accessibility is for Everyone


Accessibility is for everyone. I say that whenever an abled person finds a way that an accessibility feature benefits them. But that’s not all that it means. There are really three different meanings to that phrase:

  • Accessibility exists to make things accessible to everyone.
  • At some point, everyone has some kind of impairment which accessibility can help them with.
  • Changes that make things more accessible can be useful, convenient, or just plain fun, even for people who are 100% unimpaired.

Is this article for everyone?

This is a bare-bones outline of ways accessibility is for everyone, with a few lists of examples from my personal experience, and not much prose. This topic is fractal, though, and like a Koch Snowflake, even its outline could extend to infinite length. I’ve linked to more in-depth references where I knew of them, but tried not to go too far into detail on how to make things accessible. There are much better references for that — let me know of the ones you like in the comments.

I am not everyone

Although I do face mobility challenges in the physical world, as a software developer, I know the most about accessibility as it applies to computers. Within that, I have most experience with text-to-speech, so a lot of the examples relate to that. I welcome comments on aspects I missed. I am not an expert on accessibility, but I’d like to be.

The accessibility challenges that affect me the most are:

  • A lack of fluency in the language of the country I live in
  • Being short (This sounds harmless, but I once burnt my finger slightly because my microwave is mounted above my line of sight.)
  • Cerebral palsy spastic diplegia

That last thing does not actually affect how I use computers very much, but it is the reason I’ve had experience with modern computers from a young age.

Accessibility makes things accessible to everyone

Accessibility is for everyone — it allows everyone to use or take part in something, not just people with a certain range of abilities. This is the real goal of accessibility, and this alone is enough to justify improving accessibility. The later points in this article might help to convince people to allocate resources to accessibility, but always keep this goal in mind.

Ideally, everyone should be able to use a product without asking for special accommodations. If not, there should be a plan to accommodate those who ask, when possible. At the very least, nobody should be made to feel like they’re being too demanding just for asking for the same level of access other people get by default. Accessibility is not a feature — lack of accessibility is a bug.

Don’t make people ask

If some people have to ask questions when others don’t, the product is already less accessible to them — even if you can provide everything they ask for. This applies in a few scenarios:

  • Asking for help to use the product (e.g. help getting into a building, or using a app)
  • Asking for help accessing the accessibility accommodations. For example, asking for the key for an elevator, or needing someone else to configure the accessibility settings in software. Apple does a great job of this by asking about accessibility needs, with the relevant options turned on, during installation of macOS.
  • Asking about the accommodations available to find out if something is accessible to them before wasting time, spoons, or money on it. Make this information publicly available, e.g. on the website of your venue or event, or in your app’s description. Here’s a guide on writing good accessibility information.

Asking takes time and effort, and it can be difficult and embarrassing, whether because someone has to ask many times a day, or because they don’t usually need help and don’t like acknowledging when they do. 

In software, ‘making people ask’ is making them set up accessibility in your app when they’ve already configured the accessibility accommodations they need in the operating system. Use the system settings, rather than having your own settings for font size, dark mode, and so on. If the user has to find your extra settings before they can even use your app, there’s a good chance they won’t. Use system components as much as possible, and they’ll respect accessibility options you don’t even know about.

If they ask, have an answer

Perhaps you don’t have the resources to provide certain accommodations to everyone automatically, or it doesn’t make sense to. In that case:

  • make it clear what is available.
  • make asking for it as easy as possible (e.g. a checkbox or text field on a booking form, rather than instructions to call somebody)
  • make an effort to provide whatever it is to those who ask for it.

Assume the person really does need what they’re asking for — they know their situation better than you do.

If the answer is ‘no, sorry’, be compassionate about it

If you can’t make something accessible to a given group of people, don’t feel bad; we all have our limitations. But don’t make those people feel bad either — they have their limitations too, and they’re the ones missing out on something because of it. Remember that they’re only asking for the same thing everyone else gets automatically — they didn’t choose to need help just to annoy you.

If you simply didn’t think about their particular situation, talk with them about steps you could take. Don’t assume you know what they can or can’t do, or what will help them.

Everyone can be impaired

Accessibility is for everyone. But just like how even though all lives matter it is unfortunately still necessary to remind some people that black lives do, to achieve accessibility for everyone, we need to focus on the people who don’t get it by default. So who are they?

Apple’s human interface guidelines for accessibility say this better than I could:

Approximately one in seven people worldwide have a disability or impairment that affects the way they interact with the world and their devices. People can experience impairments at any age, for any duration, and at varying levels of severity. Situational impairments — temporary conditions such as driving a car, hiking on a bright day, or studying in a quiet library — can affect the way almost everyone interacts with their devices at various times.

Almost everyone.

This section will mostly focus on accessibility of devices such as computers, tablets, and phones. It’s what I know best, and malfunctioning hardware can be another source of impairment. Even if you don’t consider yourself disabled, if you haven’t looked through the accessibility settings of your devices yet, do so — you’re sure to find something that will be useful to you in some situations. I’ll list some ways accessibility can help with hardware issues and other situational impairments below.

Apple defines four main kinds of impairment:

Vision

There’s a big gap between someone with 20/20 full-colour vision in a well-lit room looking at an appropriately-sized, undamaged screen, and someone with no vision whatsoever. There’s even a big gap between someone who is legally blind and someone with no vision whatsoever. Whenever we are not at the most abled end of that spectrum, visual accessibility tools can help.

Here are some situations where I’ve used Vision accessibility settings to overcome purely situational impairments:

  • When sharing a screen over a videoconference or to a projector, use screen zoom, and large cursor or font sizes. On macOS when using a projector, you can also use Hover Text, however this does not show up when screensharing over a videoconference. This makes things visible to the audience regardless of the size of their videoconference window or how far they are from the projector screen.
  • When an internet connection is slow, or you don’t want to load potential tracking images in emails, image descriptions (alt text) let you know what you’re missing.
  • When a monitor doesn’t work until the necessary software is installed and configured, use a screenreader to get through the setup. I’ve done this on a Mac, after looking up how to use VoiceOver on another device.

Hearing

There’s a big gap between someone with perfect hearing and auditory processing using good speakers at a reasonable volume in an otherwise-quiet room, and someone who hears nothing at all. There’s even a big gap between someone who is Deaf and someone who hears nothing at all. Whenever we are not at the most abled end of that spectrum, hearing accessibility tools can help.

Here are some situations where I’ve used Hearing accessibility settings when the environment or hardware was the only barrier:

  • When one speaker is faulty, change the panning settings to only play in the working speaker, and turn on ‘Play stereo audio as mono’.
  • When a room is noisy or you don’t want to disturb others with sound, use closed captions.

Physical and Motor

There’s a big gap between someone with a full range of controlled, pain-free movement using a perfectly-functioning device, in an environment tailored to their body size, and someone who can only voluntarily twitch a single cheek muscle (sorry, but we can’t all be Stephen Hawking.) Whenever we are not at the most abled end of that spectrum, motor accessibility tools can help.

Here are some situations where you can use Physical and Motor accessibility to overcome purely situational impairments:

  • When a physical button on an iPhone doesn’t work reliably, use Back Tap, Custom Gestures, or the AssistiveTouch button to take over its function.
  • When you’re carrying something bulky, use an elevator. I’ve shared elevators with people who have strollers, small dogs, bicycles, suitcases, large purchases, and disabilities. I’ve also been yelled at by someone who didn’t think I should use an elevator, because unlike him, I had no suitcase. Don’t be that person.

Literacy and Learning

This one is also called Cognitive. There’s a big gap between an alert, literate, neurotypical adult of average intelligence with knowledge of the relevant environment and language, and… perhaps you’ve thought of a disliked public figure you’d claim is on the other end of this spectrum. There’s even a big gap between that person and the other end of this spectrum, and people in that gap don’t deserve to be compared to whomever you dislike. Whenever we are not at the most abled end of that spectrum, cognitive accessibility considerations can help.

Here are some situations where I’ve used accessibility when the environment was the only barrier to literacy:

  • When watching or listening to content in a language you know but are not fluent in, use closed captions or transcripts to help you work out what the words are, and find out the spelling to look them up.
  • When reading in a language you know but are not fluent in, use text-to-speech in that language to find out how the words are pronounced.
  • When consuming content in a language you don’t know, use subtitles or translations.

Accessibility features benefit abled people

Sometimes it’s hard to say what was created for the sake of accessibility and what wasn’t. Sometimes products for the general public bring in the funding needed to improve assistive technologies. Here are some widely-used things which have an accessibility aspect:

  • The Segway was based on self-balancing technology originally developed for wheelchairs. Segways and the like are still used by some people as mobility devices, even if they are not always recognised as such.
  • Voice assistants such as Siri rely on speech recognition and speech synthesis technology that has applications in all four domains of accessibility mentioned above.
  • Light or Dark mode may be a style choice for one person and an essential visual accessibility tool for another.

Other technology is more strongly associated with accessibility. Even when your body, your devices, or your environment don’t present any relevant impairment, there are still ways that these things can be useful, convenient, or just plain fun.

Useful

Some accessibility accommodations let abled people do things they couldn’t do otherwise.

  • Transcripts, closed captions, and image descriptions are easily searchable.
  • I’ve used text-to-speech APIs to generate the initial rhyme database for my rhyming dictionary, rhyme.science
  • I’ve used text-to-speech to find out how words are pronounced in different languages and accents.
  • Menstruators can use handbasins in accessible restroom stalls to rinse out menstrual cups in privacy. (This is not an argument for using accessible stalls when you don’t need them — it’s an argument for more handbasins installed in stalls!)

Convenient

Some accessibility tech lets abled people do things they would be able to do without it, but in a more convenient way.

  • People who don’t like switching between keyboard and mouse can enable full keyboard access on macOS to tab through all controls. They can also use keyboard shortcuts.
  • People who don’t want to watch an entire video to find out a piece of information can quickly skim a transcript.
  • I’ve used speak announcements on my Mac for decades. If my Mac announces something while I’m on the other side of the room, I know whether I need to get up and do something about it.
  • Meeting attendees could edit automatic transcripts from videoconferencing software (e.g. Live Transcription in Zoom) to make meeting minutes.
  • I’ve used text-to-speech on macOS and iOS to speak the names of emojis when I wasn’t sure what they were.
  • Pre-chopped produce and other prepared foods save time even for people who have the dexterity and executive function to prepare them themselves.

Fun

Some accessibility tech lets us do things that are not exactly useful, but a lot of fun.

  • Hosts of the Lingthusiasm podcast, Lauren Gawne and Gretchen McCulloch, along with Janelle Shane, fed transcripts of their podcasts into an artificial intelligence to generate a quirky script for a new episode, and then recorded that script.
  • I’ve used text-to-speech to sing songs I wrote that I was too shy to sing myself.
  • I’ve used text-to-speech APIs to detect haiku in any text.
  • Automated captions of video conferencing software and videos make amusing mistakes that can make any virtual party more fun. Once you finish laughing, make sure anyone who needed the captions knows what was really said. 
  • I may have used the ’say’ command on a server through an ssh connection to surprise and confuse co-workers in another room. 😏
  • I find stairs much more accessible if they have a handrail. You might find it much more fun to slide down the balustrade. 😁

Advocating accessibility is for everyone

I hope you’ve learnt something about how or why to improve accessibility, or found out ways accessibility can improve your own life. I’d like to learn something too, so put your own ideas or resources in the comments!

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Welcome, McFly. Seriously.


I arrived in October 21 2015 about an hour ago, and Marty McFly should be arriving later. It seems a good time to recap a few things I’ve made and done relating to Back to the Future.

They chained off my car! I guess I’m stuck in 2015 now.

Firstly, here are some lyrics I wrote for a Back-to-the-Future-related parody of Moxy Früvous’s Gulf War Song. If I’d been in Vienna more this year I probably would have fixed the bit I don’t like (the heavy/light line that needs too much explanation) and organised for some of my musical friends to sing it at Open Phil, but alas, I’ve been away too much.

Secondly, here’s a video I took of a superconducting magnetic hover-scooter created by MaNEP several years ago and occasionally shown off at events at CERN. I’m not too happy about the way I deliberately decoupled the sound from the video at one point, but never mind. You can see me riding a hoverboard. I wrote a blog post with more information.

In the year 2015, I bought one of those holographic hats that everyone’s wearing here in the future, took it to the wax museum in Vienna, and took some pictures of wax figures wearing it. Here’s a guy who could help you solve any problems you might have caused with the spacetime continuum.

Einstein 2015

And this is Michael Jackson… Fox? ready to serve you at your nearest Cafe 80s.

Michael Jackson Fox.

Of course, Elvis never died; he just skipped a few decades.

Elvis 2015

Same goes for Freddie Mercury:

Freddie Mercury 2015

The Freud dude prefers to travel in time by phone booth, though.

Freud 2015

Gustav Klimt probably thought he knew how colour worked.

DSCN3654

And here are Julia Roberts and Johnny Depp, just because.

Julia Roberts 2015

I don't recognise this guy, so it must be Johnny Depp.

Also, check out these songs other people wrote about Back to the Future. Like an Anvil by The Burning Hell (from the album ‘Flux Capacitor’) and one simply called Back to the Future by Insane Ian.

Have fun; I’ll be going to a screening of Jaws 19 (or is it Back to the Future I and II?) with my hat and my copy of the Back to the Future card game.

I look forward to seeing whether this tumblr continues as normal after it’s actually correct.

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Apple Watch vs. Macintosh Classic boot time


I somehow ended up buying an Apple Watch the other day, though I’d intended to wait a while first. I have a pretty neat Casio digital watch already, of course, but I’d never had a wearable computer. Now that I have one, I’d better get to work writing apps for it in order to rationalise my purchase, though my hopes of making millions on a fart app have already been dashed. But first, my friend (and fellow Apple Watch early adopter) Phil and I visited a friend’s collection of old Apple computers, and tested the startup time of the 2015 Apple Watch running Watch OS 1.0 against a 1991 Macintosh Classic running System 7.1. Here’s my video of the test:

And here’s Phil’s:

Since the Apple watch probably won’t need to be restarted very often, the difference might not add up to many lifetimes, but it was fun to test. An Apple Watch engineer suggested the results would be different at the bottom of a swimming pool.

I’ve spent much more time with Macintosh Classics than with my Apple Watch so far, and I don’t think it’s really fair to compare them, but so far I like the watch better. Among other things, the Apple Watch has a greater variety of available straps, is lighter on the wrist, is more likely to tell the correct time, and will show the time prominently without the addition of third-party software such as the SuperClock control panel.

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Recording: Te Harinui


When Europeans colonised New Zealand, they brought not only mammals to drive many of the native birds to extinction, but also their religion to exterminate the native theodiversity. This began with Reverend Samuel Marsden on Christmas Day 1814, and there is a Christmas carol about it called Te Harinui. Since it just turned Christmas day about an hour ago in New Zealand, here‘s a recording of Te Harinui I just made.

It’s sung by the voice Vicki from my robot choir (an app I wrote to make my Mac sing using the built-in speech synthesis.) It has a couple of little glitches, and I couldn’t get it to pronounce the Māori words exactly right, but otherwise, I think this is the best Vicki has ever sounded. Usually I switch to Victoria because Vicki’s singing sounds weird. I made a couple of tweaks to the time allocated to consonants, and I think they helped. I used the music in the New Zealand Folk Song page, with a few small changes to the ‘glad tidings’ line to make it sound more like how I remember it.

You can see the effect of widespread hemispherism in the fact that the song opens by saying it isn’t snowy, as if being snowy were the default state and any deviation from it must be called out.

Now, I must get some good Christmas sleep.

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Hemispherism: Is it time for a War on Winter?


The Holidailies writing prompt for today is:

Tomorrow is the first day of winter. What do you consider the perfect winter day?

Well. Once again somebody has forgotten about the ‘worldwide’ part of the worldwide web. The first day of winter depends on the region. For example, this time last year I was heading to Norrköping, Sweden, where it was still warm enough even a week later to be officially autumn. This time in 2011 I was in Geneva, where according to the canton’s official chestnut tree, it was already spring. But those are edge cases. There’s also approximately an entire hemisphere where it’s summer. An entire hemisphere, without which Earth would be quite a bit smaller than Venus.

I can’t speak for that entire hemisphere, but I did grow up in New Zealand, where summer officially started on December 1. Even when people remember that the Southern Hemisphere exists, they often forget about New Zealand. I also can’t speak for New Zealanders who don’t celebrate Christmas in some way, and so must fend off assumptions of Christmas as well as assumptions of that Christmas being white. I do celebrate Christmas, and I’m going to tell you what that’s like in New Zealand.

Sometimes we have barbecues. Sometimes we go to the beach. Because that’s the logical thing to do in the summer. We usually eat pavlova and ice cream, because that’s pretty much always a logical thing to do. Strawberries are in season and go with pavlova, so we eat them too.

But a lot of the time we have a big roast dinner with turkey, chicken, ham, or lamb. Most of the time we listen to wintery songs about Christmas, forever dreaming of a white Christmas that will never come. Often we sing winter songs such as Jingle Bells and Winter Wonderland, which make no mention of Christmas whatsoever. Like people in the Northern Hemisphere, we sing them thinking they are Christmas songs, so thoroughly indoctrinated with Northist culture that we don’t realise there’s anything illogical about it. We do not sing the winter songs in winter, unless we’re having a mid-winter Christmas party. We have mid-winter Christmas parties because we’ve been repeatedly told that Christmas is a winter event, so in an attempt to have a ‘real’ one, we’ll sometimes have one in June.

Outside, pohutukawa and feijoa trees bloom red on green, sometimes turning our roads and driveways red with fallen stamens. Inside, we decorate with plastic holly and mistletoe, and Christmas cards of snowy driveways. Sometimes we spray fake snow on our windows. Some of us cover our entire sweaty bodies in what I hope is the thinnest red, faux-warm fabric we can find, and ask little kids to sit on our laps and tell us what they want for Christmas. Oh yes, Santa Claus: he lives at the North Pole, of course. Because Christmas belongs to the North. There isn’t even land at the North Pole. Well, we’ll see who’s jolly when we burn all that coal he gave us and cause the Arctic ice sheets to melt.

I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere for almost ten years now, and I’ve never seen anyone have a midsummer Christmas party, or hang up plastic pohutukawa. When I went out in the snow and warmed my hands on mulled wine at my first Christmas market, I didn’t think about how strange it was to have Christmas in winter, the way people from the Northern Hemisphere say it is when they first experience or even think about Christmas in summer. I thought about how much more Christmasy it seemed. How it finally seemed like a real Christmas, like in the movies, on the internet, on TV, in songs, in books, in even my own mind. About how I’d been subtly led to believe that my own Christmases were abnormal. And finally, as a boring overprivileged white middle class whatever, I understood what it was like to be marginalised and not even realise it.

My Christmases were never abnormal. Just outnumbered. Isn’t it about time people in the Northern Hemisphere started hanging up pohutukawa? Isn’t it time they dreamed of a red Christmas? Isn’t it about time we looked at them funny and remarked on how strange it must be to have cold weather in December? Isn’t it about time we reminded people to at least think before wishing someone a happy winter? The next time somebody complains that the shops have their Christmas decorations up before it’s even cold outside, or feels the need to to include snow even in a Christmas song set on an asteroid, send them this ‘Christmas song’ and ask how they’d like hearing it on radios and in shops throughout the Christmas season:

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What’s the difference between couchette cars and sleeping cars?


Today I found out that New Zealand has lie-flat sleeper buses, which I’m going to have to try while I’m here. I can’t sleep on planes, but I can on trains, so buses should be my next experiment.

This news reminded me that I intended to post about the differences between couchette cars (Liegewagen/Voiture-couchettes) and sleeping cars (Schlafwagen/Voiture-lits) on overnight trains in Europe. I searched for information about the difference before I took my first overnight train, and wasn’t too satisfied with the descriptions I found, so I went with the slightly-more-expensive sleeping car to be sure I’d be comfortable.

A couple of months ago, due to lack of available sleeping places, I took a couchette for the first time, from Vienna to Rome, and then took a sleeping place on the way back. I took some notes on the differences. Both trains were catered by newrest, as were other night trains I’d taken around Europe (between Vienna and Zürich or Amsterdam.)

Amenities

There’s not a lot of space in a cabin on an overnight train, so there are many things cleverly tucked away which you might not notice unless someone else in the cabin is more experienced than you. I probably missed a lot of things.

Sleeper

Secret washbasin, usually hidden under part of a table or inside a little cabinet (where there is also a mirror.) Fold-out table, no real seats, but sitting on the bed is comfortable as long as the bunk immediately above is folded away. On the trip from Rome to Vienna there was a little cubbyhole (with a door, but I’m not sure if it locked) for each bed, next to the washing cabinet.

Couchette

Small table, no washbasin, but the seats are normal, comfortable seats until the seat backs are folded away to convert them into beds.

Evening goodies

Sleeper

Thin newrest slippers (which I now have a collection of at home), a facecloth, 3M earplugs, a small container of potable water which I think is intended for tooth brushing. On other routes, there has also been a bottle of drinking water, a bottle of sparkling wine (which I mistook for sparkling water on my first trip, and tried to drink with breakfast), and something small to eat (a small packet of pretzels, or a tube of fruit compote) in the cabin on my arrival. On the trip from Rome to Vienna, the attendant asked if I wanted a fruit salad, and when I said yes, brought it back in a small glass bowl along with a bottle of drinking water, a bottle of sangria, and a packet of party cracker mix. In general there’s some kind of snack and something mildly alcoholic to put you to sleep.

Couchette

A bottle of water.

Sleeping place

Whether couchette or sleeper, the more people can theoretically fit into the cabin you booked, the cheaper it will be. There can be up to three bunks on each side of the cabin, some of which will stay folded away if the cabin is not full. If you’re lucky, you can get a cabin to yourself even if you booked a four- or six-person cabin.

Sleeper

Mattress with sheet on it (already tucked in etc.) duvet and fairly normal-sized pillow. Pretty comfortable to sleep on, though due to the movement and noise of the train I still wake up a few times during the night. On one train to Amsterdam, I barely slept due to the noise; I think I was at the end of a car or of the train, which might make a difference to the noise or movement.

Couchette

Lightly-padded bench-type seats that convert into narrow beds, with a sheet (which you have to unfold and spread out yourself after converting the seat to a bed) a blanket, and tiny pillow just big enough to fit a head on. The benches are soft enough to be comfortable seats, but not really soft enough for sleeping, unless you’re used to sleeping on fairly hard surfaces; I could sleep quite well, but when I woke up during the night I always found parts of my body still asleep. What’s more, couchettes are a bit narrower than beds, so probably wouldn’t be suitable for people who have enough natural padding to make up for this.

Breakfast

In both kinds of accommodation, breakfast is brought to you in the morning, a certain amount of time before the stop you’re getting off at; if you’re sharing a room with someone who’s getting off before you, chances are you’ll wake up when they get their breakfast. If I recall correctly, you can get free refills on the tea and coffee if you can be bothered getting the attendant to come back.

Sleeper

You get a menu to fill out in the evening where you can choose 6 items (more for €1 each) from a list that includes tea, coffee, orange juice (in a carton so you can save it for later if you want), two pieces of bread, yoghurt, and various cold meats, cheeses and spreads. Unfortunately I lost the photo I took of the menu. I usually get a hot drink, bread, yoghurt, and three things to put on the bread. The ‘two pieces of bread’ option is a bit of a mystery bag which sometimes gets you slices of bread and sometimes rolls; I recall getting a croissant on one train, but I can’t remember whether that was a separate option.

Couchette

White rolls with butter and jam, and a choice of tea or coffee.

Overall, the couchette car is just comfortable enough (it’s not going to be your best night’s sleep in any case, but it’ll do, if you’re the kind of person who can sleep on trains) and you wouldn’t notice anything wrong with it if you’d never tried a sleeper car. The sleeper car has a lot of nice luxurious touches, though, and I will continue to use them when I can.

If you have other experiences with couchettes or sleeper cars in Europe or elsewhere, please share them in the comments so we can compare.

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Reviews of a Mid-air Movie Marathon


Technology is great. For instance, did you know that you can get to New Zealand from Europe simply by sitting in three different chairs in the sky and watching about seven movies while people bring you a succession of breakfasts and dinners in no discernible order? It doesn’t even cost any more money if you book it the day before instead of several months in advance, although it can be quite disruptive to daily blogging projects, and pretty much everything else. I know because I did it a week or so ago. In an attempt to get back on the Holidailies bandwagon, I’m going to review the movies I watched. I’ve never reviewed movies before, and I’ve also never properly slept on a plane before, so chances are these are poorly-written reviews of movies interspersed with the daydreams of a sleep-deprived mind.

First off, I can’t remember any scenes which would cause any of these movies (except perhaps the last one) to pass the Bechdel test, but I was awake for more than 48 hours that day, and I wasn’t specifically looking for such scenes, so I don’t trust my memory. I am pretty sure that they all had mostly male protagonists, so such scenes were not the norm. That means that even if they passed (and at least one apparently did), they didn’t do it with flying colours, even if I was flying at the time and they were in colour.

I’ve put the movie descriptions from the in-flight entertainment system at the start of each review. The order of the reviews is only approximately the order I saw the movies in.

Boyhood

Filmed over 12 years with the same cast, this film is a groundbreaking story of growing up as seen through the eyes of a child named Mason, who literally grows up on screen. Snapshots of adolescence from road trips and family dinners to birthdays and graduations, and all the moments in between, chart the rocky terrain of childhood like no other film ever has before.

I was going to start with Winter Soldier, but the premise of this seemed interesting, so I played it on impulse. I wasn’t sure whether it was going to be a documentary or a movie. It was a movie. With all the effort and risk involved in filming the same cast over twelve years, it’s a shame they didn’t really come up with a plot for it. There were entertaining slices of life, though.

The film jumped from one year to the next without any clear indication that time was being skipped, so sometimes (especially during the parts where there were four children instead of two) it was difficult to tell when there were new characters and when they were just the old characters a bit older with different haircuts. Keeping the same actors is a great idea in theory, because it should be easier to recognise the character as a year-older version of the same actor than a completely different actor, but they still changed a lot. It could be that they deliberately changed the haircuts and hair colours of the actors in order to make it more obvious that they’d skipped some time, but I’d have been happier if they’d just put a date or ‘six months later’ title on the bottom of the screen.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Marvel’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” finds Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, living quietly in Washington, D.C. But when a S.H.I.E.L.D. colleague comes under attack, Steve joins forces with Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, and a new ally, the Falcon, to battle a powerful yet shadowy enemy – the Winter Soldier.

Planes are a good way to catch up on all the movies the whole internet seems to be talking about which you somehow didn’t hear about or get around to seeing until it was too late. There were surprisingly few of them on offer (the internet talked so loudly about Guardians of the Galaxy that I saw it in the theatre soon after its release) but with this one I finally found out why the internet has been saying ‘hail hydra’ so much lately. My first flight was less than six hours, so I actually had to watch the end of this on my second flight. I’m more used to having two twelve-hour flights and a one-hour flight, so this was a bit of a jarring intermission. They didn’t even serve overpriced popcorn in Dubai airport. Anyway, it was a good superhero movie, with no gratuitous love interest that I can remember, but still a plot point borrowed from Romeo and Juliet.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

With his 100th birthday approaching, Alan Karlsson has led a long and eventful life. Despite his age, Alan has grown restless and while still in good shape, decides to flee his boring everyday life.

I pressed play on this one as soon as I saw it in the list. I read the book several years ago on the advice of a friend, and was excited to see the movie, even though it’s in Swedish and at that point in the flights I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep my eyes open to read the subtitles. I managed it well enough. The movie is good fun, although it necessarily misses some of the details and subplots of the book, because that’s what movies do. If you liked Forrest Gump, you’d probably like this; the guy’s life is a similarly unbelievable string of events. He reminds me of me. He also reminds me of Werner von Braun.

I Origins

While studying the evolution of the eye, molecular biologist Dr. Ian Gray and his lab partner, Karen, make a stunning scientific discovery that has far reaching implications and causes them to question their once-certain scientific and spiritual beliefs. Risking everything he’s ever known, Gray travels halfway around the world to validate his theory.

A more accurate description would be, ‘While studying the evolution of the eye, Dr. Ian Gray, with the help of his student slave who turns out to be competent, useful, and maybe even listed as a co-author, Karen, makes all the scientific discoveries he hoped to make. Later, he discovers that somebody else seems to be testing an unstated hypothesis that might cause them to question their spiritual beliefs. Risking a disappointing mid-air movie marathon, he flies halfway around the world to perform a single uncontrolled experiment to test what he hypothesises that hypothesis might be, with inconclusive results.’ I was disappointed, but I was still entertained enough for the amount of concentration I still had.

The Giver

In the year 2048, Jonas lives in a seemingly ideal world of conformity and contentment. Yet, as he begins to spend time with The Giver, the sole keeper of all of his community’s memories, Jonas begins to discover the dark and deadly truths of his community’s secret past, and realises that to protect the ones he loves, he must achieve the impossible and escape their world.

Just another dystopian utopia. A bit like Pleasantville, with a mandatory daily dose of I Feel Fantastic. The final quest reminded me a bit of Milo smuggling a sound out of the Soundkeeper’s place in The Phantom Tollbooth. The title caused unpleasant goatse flashbacks.

Edge of Tomorrow

As Earth faces an relentless assault from an alien race, Major William Cage is unceremoniously dropped into what amounts to a suicide mission. Killed within minutes, Cage finds himself inexplicably thrown into a time loop, forcing him to live out the same brutal combat over and over. But with each battle, Cage gets more skillful and, alongside fellow soldier Rita Vrataski, closer and closer to defeating the enemy.

It’s like Groundhog Day, but the groundhogs are aliens casting their shadow over everything to forecast six more weeks of human life or an early extinction. In the very last scene, I thought to myself, ‘Hey, that guy looks kind of like Tom Cruise.’ Then the credits rolled and it turned out to be Tom Cruise. I’m quite proud of myself because I don’t usually recognise actors, and Tom Cruise is especially nondescript.

Predestination

(No description, since this was on a code-shared Qantas flight, and they don’t put the descriptions from their comparatively-terrible in-flight entertainment system online)

After watching this, I vaguely remembered a co-worker telling me about such a movie several years ago. It sounded really interesting and I wanted to see it. That’s weird because this movie only came out this year. Perhaps my co-worker is actually a future version of myself who travelled back in time to mess with my head. Or perhaps he was telling me about the Robert A. Heinlein short story —All You Zombies— that the movie is based on. Anyway, I really enjoyed this film, and watched the beginning of it again during the last half-hour or so of my last flight. I think the Bechdel test needs a fair bit of clarification before I can say whether this movie passes.

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Shoe Shop Map


A while ago a friend of mine was excited to discover that she could fit the shoes in the children’s section, which were cheaper. Someone else was delighted to discover that she could fit shoes in the ladies’ section, having assumed her feet were too small. This kind of thing happens because shoe shops label sections according to who they are trying to sell to, rather than what is in those sections. So I walked around a few shoe shops in Vienna and made a rough map of the actual contents of each section, so that you can figure out from your shoe size and shoe design priorities where the shoes you’re looking for are most likely to be.

The maps just happen to fit neatly onto two pages, so if you want, you can print them and hang them at the entrance of a shoe shop as a public service (though I do not advise this, as it may be considered littering or vandalism or something like that.) You can click on the image below to get a nice smooth vector pdf.

Okay, here's the summary. Kids: Practical shoes European size 39 and under suitable for anyone who fits them and wants to wear them often cheaper than the shoes in the other sections. Men: Primarily practical shoes size 40 and over suitable for anyone who fits them and wants to wear them. Women: primarily decorative shoes sizes 36 to 42 suitable for anyone who fits them and wants to wear them. Cashier: cashier, and accessories they can upsell.

Note that not all shoe shops contain all of these sections, and some others contain ‘sport’ sections, which I think are reasonably self-explanatory. Also, there are of course exceptions and differences between shops — I found one pair of size-36 boots in a ‘men’s’ section, and there’s usually a small cache of shoes designed primarily for comfort in the ‘women’s’ section, and some shops only go up to size 41 in that section. This map is simply intended to let people know which sections they might find shoes they like in, in case they had missed those sections due to their age and gender and the shops’ inaccurate signage.

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Misinterpreting Douglas Adams: Digital watches were a pretty neat idea.


My first watch was digital. I was probably nine or ten, and the watch was a black Casio with a dashed line around the face in alternating green and blue. My brother and I would race to find each other whenever we noticed the hour was about to change, so that we could watch the watch digits all change at once. Needless to say, the changes from 9:59:59 to 10:00:00 and 12:59:59 to 1:00:00 were especially thrilling[⁉︎].

I’d learnt how to read an analogue clock, of course, but not fluently. To me, reading an analogue clock was akin to reading Roman numerals: a quirky, difficult system from long ago. Some analogue clocks even had the hours in Roman numerals. Some had no numbers at all. Some such watches only seemed to exist to give men a socially acceptable way to wear bracelets. Telling time was clearly not a priority.

So when I read in the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy that humans were “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea,” I naturally assumed it was because intelligent life forms had invented them so long ago that digital watches had about as much chance of being described as a ‘neat idea’ as the wheel. Digital watches are too simple an invention for anyone to find interesting. These days, almost everything has a digital clock built in, so the most important thing about a digital watch is a strong strap to keep it conveniently on the wrist.

A Casio digital watch displaying Sunday, 3 August, at 13:37:59 daylight savings time, set against a backdrop of The Ultimate Hitchhikers' GuideA few digital watches and a grudge against fragile watch straps and lost pins later, I moved to Switzerland, and when my watch strap broke or fell off I felt obliged to check out some of the famous Swiss watches. I was baffled by the evidence that not only did humans still think digital watches were a pretty neat idea, they also still thought analogue ones were. The only Swiss digital watches with good straps I could find had skeuomorphic round faces, or lacked such basic features as seconds, dates, or a light. I get it: the Swiss are proud of how precise they can be with tiny gears. But it’s the third millennium; get with the timepieces!

As Swiss innovations go, I prefer milk chocolate and Velcro. I found a Casio dealer and bought a solar-powered, waterproof, digital watch that synchronises daily with an atomic clock using radio waves and has a well-attached metal strap. It will stay on my wrist and display precisely the right time in plain digits, indefinitely with no intervention whatsoever, for less than the price of a piece of Swiss jewellery that doesn’t even have numbers on it. A fall onto concrete gave it some sparkly cracks in one corner, but it is still waterproof and functional many years and no battery changes or time adjustments later.

Unhappy with the hypothesis that most of the human race was more concerned with adding respectability to their diamond bracelets than with locating themselves in spacetime, I had to eventually accept that there was something people liked about analogue watches. Just as there must be something great about shoelaces that keeps Earthbound people using them even after the invention of Velcro, and even though Back to the Future fans know that by 2015 we shouldn’t still be tying them.

The thought crept up on me that maybe Douglas Adams didn’t like digital watches at all. Maybe he didn’t think they were ever a pretty neat idea. I thought about this for a few years, gradually becoming less and less sure that my initial interpretation was the correct one. Eventually, I looked it up:

So there you have it. Douglas Adams liked pie charts. I like pie charts too, but after the first glance I will look for the labels with exact percentages, and be frustrated if they aren’t there. For me, a word can be worth a thousand pictures, and a number can be worth a poorly-defined number of words.

As he says, digital watches have improved since then. I don’t need to put down my suitcase to press a button on my watch, unless it’s either dark and I need to turn the watch light on, or it’s recently been dark and the watch turned off its display to save power. In fact, my suitcase has four wheels (wheels! Now, aren’t they a neat idea?) so I never have to pick it up to begin with; I just give it a push occasionally while I stroll along, reading the time like a frood.

Reader participation alert:

Did you interpret the statement about digital watches the same way I did? If not, how did you interpret it, and how did it mesh with your own opinion on digital watches?

[⁉︎] If you think you’ve grown out of such primitive excitement, try watching the hour change on this clock made of planks of wood and rearranged manually by construction workers. The website only delivers one image at a time, now, so you’d have to refresh a lot to get a video effect there, but they sell an iOS app which will show you video, the Lite version of which has the transition from 9:59 to 10:00.

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Five of Clubs: Marmites


This weekend Geneva celebrates the Fête de l’Escalade, so I made a video of the piece I wrote about various things called marmites, their nutritional value, use in soup cooking, and effectiveness against invading Savoyards. It’s been adapted slightly to work on video, and includes some destruction, a dangerous stunt, and a slight tilt I didn’t have time to correct.

Chocolate cannon for shooting marmites

I read this at the Geneva Writers’ Group on Saturday, using all the same props, and the Marmite was smashed in a way probably closer to the tradition than all the other Marmite-smashings I’ve induced. It’s the last one in the video. I am not sure how many people tried the various yeast spreads, but several told me of their preexisting preferences.

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