Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Home Videos: Get in on the Act

In 1927, Warner Bros produced the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, on a rather large budget of $422,000 (about $22 million in 2012 terms) - approximately 1.5 times what most silent films had cost to make until then.

In 1995, the Los Angeles Times reported that the average cost of making and marketing a feature film was approximately $50.4 million. In 2011 it cost around $65 million to produce the film plus another $35 million to market it - that's a cool $100 million. 3D movie production company, False Creek Productions, calculates that 3D movie production will set you back an additional 19% (PDF). Mega-3D-blockbusters, like Avatar, reportedly cost somewhere between $280 million and $500 million to produce (plus marketing costs).

In stark contrast to this, according to NuWire Investor:
The cost of producing indie [independent] films varies widely depending on the project, anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $20 million or more.
Some indie films, while not usually full-length feature films, can be quite compelling. Websites, such as shortoftheweek.com showcase the best indie films, like The Camera, about which filmmaker Ivan Kandler writes:
Then comes a movie like Peter Lewis’s The Camera, a mysterious, intriguing tale that was made with a DSLR, no crew, and about fifty bucks. Perfect in its simplicity, beautiful and haunting in its visuals, The Camera is a reminder that a great film is in everyone’s grasp, as long as he/she has the creative capacity and appropriate willpower to drop pretension, and quite simply, make something.

Today, anyone can literally get in on the act. All you need is a digital camera, a decent PC and some basic free or low-cost editing software (maybe a smidgen of talent and a bucket-load of patience). Because YouTube, Vimeo and other video staging sites are free, it is extremely easy to share your creations with the world. In fact, YouTube says that over 4 billion hours of video are watched on YouTube each month. Where does all the content come from?
48 hours of video are uploaded every minute, resulting in nearly 8 years of content uploaded every day.
My friend, the very talented nothingfunnyleft, operates a long-running YouTube vlog (video-log) called Me, My BrotherS, & My Dad (sic) - a series of adorable videos of the things he and his kids get up to. Most of nothingfunnyleft's 420 vlogs (so far) are about a minute in length - that's 420 minutes of priceless cuteness for the cost of a camera and a few minutes of post-processing work.

Long-time readers of this blog will remember my (very) short film Waiting, which I created for the sole purpose of experimenting with a cloning technique I read about.


YouTuber, Freddie Wong, used a Samsung Galaxy SII to record this short film. Freddie is a professional and his special effects are somewhat beyond the abilities of basic video editors. However, Gamer Commute shows that highly accessible, non-specialized equipment can really do the job.

In 2010, the Guggenheim Museum teamed up with YouTube to create an exhibition of home movies. The idea was to showcase the most creative talent "no matter what the technique, the style or the budget". The videos selected ranged from Birds on the Wires, which required a lot of technical expertise to create, to Foods which is simply one woman announcing her food cravings over the course of a month.

If I had known about the exhibition, I may have entered my very first movie, which I shot in 1986 when I was about 12 years old. I filmed Rubbish Collection on a reel-to-reel Super8 - no chance for re-takes and no editing. That was back in the day when film cost money and you had to send it off to Kodak to be developed.

Thanks to my father for digitizing this wonderful piece of nostalgia. After all, unlike most multi-million dollar Hollywood productions, the best movies are those that still make you smile 30 years on.

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Call for Links to Home Movies

I am writing a blog-post about home movies. Send me a link to your home-made videos and I may include them. The deadline is Sunday 26 August, 2012.

Send all links to yossi at ykarp dot com.

So be part of it and don't delay!

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Press 1 to Give Up

Without taking any formal polls, I estimate that 99% of the world hates automated answering systems.

There's a dark, dank office in the lower basement of a ramshackle castle atop a spindly hill, in which sits a hunchbacked hermit who rubs his calloused hands with evil glee as he codes telephone-menu software. Once in a while, when the crashing thunder shakes the windows from their hinges and the lightning rips through the eerie night sky, you may hear a prolonged, maniacal laugh echo through the deep, desolate valleys as he releases the next version to production.

But we forgive companies because we think that there isn't much of an alternative - it's a busy call center and they have to manage all of the incoming calls somehow, right?

I recently read an article about how companies use a special algorithm to determine if it is worthwhile to answer your phone call or not. The software calculates whether there are others in the queue who are likely to spend more money than you. Less desirable customers are pushed aside in favor of the bigger spenders.

Rafi Karp, Director of Operations at Glassfish (www.glassfish.co.il), a company that helps businesses to increase sales by improving customer service, believes that this system is a PR disaster waiting to happen:
There could be indirect negative effects on their business if it gets out that a company is profiling customers with an algorithm - the average consumer will feel belittled and unimportant and ultimately have negative associations with the company, possibly causing them to switch to a new supplier. A company that champions the consumer, regardless of who they are, is going to ultimately build a better customer reputation as a service provider. This reputation, as extensive research has proven, is one of the most valuable assets to a company.
Put simply, automated telephone answering systems (especially sneaky ones) are the least customer-friendly way to do business because they take existing customers and make them hate the company.

Of course, the average consumer doesn't know that he has been rated, ranked and relegated to the end of the queue. He is left hanging on the line, sentenced to endless repetitive elevator music, advertisements and pleas to hang up and use the Internet. When he finally does get through, his patience and energy have been sufficiently depleted so as to weaken his defenses.

The company wins, again.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Is HR the Enemy?

The purpose of every HR department is to practice the HR policies set by the company. HR reps aren't there to represent the employee - unless, of course, the company policies and the needs of an employee happen to coincide (sexual harassment issues, for example). This may seem to be a sweepingly broad statement, but it is the reality of corporate life.

If you haven't already experienced HR's two-sidedness then you probably haven't been paying attention. The benefits, fun and good feelings that the HR department is responsible for are merely part of a wider aim to smokescreen employees from the true company goals. For instance, the purpose of company fun days, parties, food and birthday gifts is to lull you into a sense of loyalty, community and belonging so you won't leave.

Call me a cynic, if you like. I prefer the word "realist". And, yes, I have been burned by HR before, but that was back in the day when I naively thought that HR's job is to help the employee as much as it is to implement company policy. They might be lovely people but, like the rest of us, HR representatives are paid to work in the interests of the company. They are not evil, they're just doing their jobs. To paraphrase my friend, you can't blame a lion for killing it's prey and you can't blame the prey for being eaten - it is merely the way of the wild.

This friend (let's call him Jim) told me an interesting story about a job interview he once had. I assume it was a small and HR-less company because the owner (let's call him Mr. Prince) conducted the interview. Mr. Prince looked Jim dead in the eye and said,
"Let's get one thing straight. I am here to try to negotiate the lowest salary in return for the highest number of working hours, whereas you are here to extract the highest salary from me for the lowest number of working hours. Don't be afraid to start high because we'll find a reasonable compromise somewhere in the middle.
Furthermore, I expect that in three to six months you will be knocking on my office door, asking for more money. I will be disappointed if you don't. You may succeed, but only if you can convince me that you have added to your skill-set, which I can then on-sell as consulting services to clients."
That's called candour, something you'll never get from an HR representative. Mr. Prince laid the cards on the table and said it as it is. No hidden agendas or secret motives. And that was smart because when the negotiation was done, he always got complete buy-in from the new employee. In contrast, HR's modus operandi is to make you feel warm and fuzzy before chaining you to your desk for as many hours a day as they can get away with, for as low a salary as possible, preferably without you noticing. HR has their way of making you feel that you have some control, but no matter if you are a top manager or a bottom-rung worker, it's an illusion. All equipment needs maintenance to keep functioning at peak performance and happy workers are productive workers. Get my drift?

But when all seems bleak, you can rely on my friend Jim to pour a bit of sunshine on the gloom. Jim says that every employee needs to give himself permission to look after his own interests. That's no small thing because first we have to understand and come to terms with the reality in which we live.

There are those, says Jim, who are super-qualified, experienced and brilliant at their jobs, but they remain in lower-paid positions because they haven't given themselves permission to look outside their companies for a job with better conditions. The reasons for this vary, but certainly among them are that these people feel comfortable in their current job and the side benefits (like meals and company outings) seem too good to give up. Perhaps they are simply unaware that their false sense of comfort is a result of years of manipulation by HR. But these people need to wake up. There is no such thing as loyalty when it comes to the employer/employee relationship, even if HR tries to make you believe there is.

I'm not advocating corporate insurgency or burning HR reps at the stake. In fact, like HR reps themselves, your contractual obligation to the company means that you have to do good work. After all, you are being paid to do a job and you are morally and legally bound to uphold your end of the deal. Also, if you want a decent reference for your next job application, you will want to work responsibly and to the best of your abilities.

When you push all the fluff and nonsense aside, HR is but one of the company's many tools that helps them with the only thing they care about - their bottom line. You, as an employee, should give yourself permission to care about yours, too.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Turning More into Less, More or Less

One of the important skills a Technical Writer needs is to be able to take long-winded sentences, cut out irrelevant, repetitive, and useless words to make the sentence shorter, thus making it easier for the reader to understand.


To communicate effectively, Technical Writers must be able to edit text for clarity and brevity.

When editing my own work, I sometimes pretend that the text awkwardly creeps across to the next page. The challenge is to use fewer words without changing the meaning of the sentence so that all of the text fits on one page - no re-formatting allowed. It's often easier to write an entire paragraph than it is to convey the same information in a single sentence, so this little game makes for tighter writing.

Knowing which words to cut and which to keep is a skill. Twitter provides a great training ground for improving in this area. With only 140 characters to get your point across there isn't much room for warbling. Increase the level of difficulty by always using full words, correct grammar and complete sentences.

For example, on 9 August 2012 I drafted this:
My fridge self-destructed. Coincidentally, the bottom 3 drawers of my stand-alone freezer work, but the top 2 drawers are cold but not freezing. Not fixing the freezer until my new fridge arrives.  [198 characters]
But tweeted this:
My fridge imploded. Coincidentally, top 2 drawers of my stand-alone freezer are cold but not freezing. Not fixing it til new fridge arrives. [140 characters]
The tweet, above, the one I eventually posted, says pretty much the same as the original and preserves its tone. Granted, I massaged the grammar a bit and cheated by using the numeral 2 and the word "til". Also, "Coincidentally" is not strictly required, but I wanted it in. Overall, it's still not a bad effort.

Just for the record, according to this article, you should never tweet a 140 character tweet
Because if you write a 140 character Twitter post, nobody can retweet it without editing it. And since people are lazy, you aren’t getting retweeted!
Apparently, the ideal tweet length = 140 - (the @ sign + your twitter handle + one space + RT). So for me that would be 140 - (@ykarp RT), which corresponds to: 140 - (1 + 5 + 1 + 2) = 131 characters.

The joke is that the definition of an engineer is someone who spends 20 years developing a technology that saves 20 seconds. From one perspective, it may not seem like a worthwhile pursuit, but the users of that technology will appreciate it. Just think of all the money spent and energy expended by hardware and software engineers to reduce operating system start-up times from 3 minutes to 30 seconds.

Sometimes, for the benefit of our readers, we have to invest time and effort improving the readability of a document by turning more into less, more or less.