Oct 152017

Over the last 15-20 years, there’s been a disturbing trend in filmmaking. No, I don’t mean superhero sequels. I’m cool with that (mostly; I’m talking to you, moody, conflicted take on Superman). I mean shaky cinematography.

Obviously, cinematography can be used to create a mood or set the emotional tone of a scene in a film. Used properly, techniques in camera work can heighten the sense of urgency in a scene, and some degree of camera shake can give a sense of being along for the ride, or that feeling of watching a documentary rather than a work of fiction.

The problem is when the camera bounces around so much that it makes the viewer seasick, or causes headaches. Even this wouldn’t be too bad in limited doses. What’s really bad is when entire movies are filmed with cameras handled as if operated by people who just quit a massive coffee habit and are going through caffeine withdrawal.

I’m writing this while trying to watch “The Bourne Supremacy.” I started writing because the camera work in this film is so unsteady that I can only watch a few moments at a time for large stretches of the movie. What’s the point to making a movie that’s so hard to watch?

Of all the filmmaking techniques available, this is, I think, the most annoying even in limited amounts. Can this trend please finally stop? I’d rather have excessive lens flares. Really.

 Posted by at 3:26 PM
Sep 192017

Due to the size and arrangement of the rooms in our new house, we realized we need a way to communicate room-to-room that didn’t involve shouting at each other. Since we don’t all have a phone on us all the time, we decided an intercom is just the ticket.

After experimenting a while with using WebRTC to make intercom software for tablets we could wall-mount, we decided to get a limited number of Nucleus intercom and see if we like them. So we now have then on place, and while they’re pretty nifty, I have several frustrations and disappointments. I’ll share a few here.

  • There’s an app that lets you call intercoms from mobile devices, but they can’t call each other.
  • While there’s a “broadcast all” button to make an announcement through all intercom units, you can’t include mobile devices in the broadcast. These two items preclude using spare tablets as extra intercoms.
  • More frustratingly, there’s no way to broadcast to a single intercom. I want to be able to announce to my daughter when her door is closed and she’s not yet fully awake that she’s running late for school.
  • It’s nifty that you can have remote intercom stations located on other networks (at Grandma’s house, for example), but if you don’t have any, the “Remote” tab in the main UI shouldn’t exist. It’s too easy to accidentally swipe your main station list away, and this could confuse younger (or older) household members. Same goes if there are no local stations, for that matter.
  • You can’t customize the ringtone.
  • You should be able to control the volume level of calls, engines, and Alex’s voice individually.
  • Each station is represented by a name and a small photo. It needs a way to set station photos to pictures taken on other devices; using the built-in camera for this is an exercise in frustration resulting in hideous icons.
  • Each station on the menu of intercoms has a big box but you have to tap a much smaller area to start a call. Instead, the whole thing should start a video call, with a smaller button to do audio instead.
  • In addition to the above, a preference for whether audio or video calls are the default would be nice to have.
  • There’s no way in the UI to answer a video call request with “I’ll talk but audio only.”
  • I’d love to have more ability to customize the display. Show family calendars and chore lists. Stuff like that. Basically, it’d be awesome to run apps or even little applets on it! This alone could turn this into a much better device.
  • I wish I could leave messages for viewing or listening to at a later time.
  • It uses WebRTC and other standards but has enough opaque, proprietary stuff to prevent me from experimenting with it or connecting from non-Nucleus code.
  • It supports streaming music, but has speakers woefully inadequate for the task, with no jack for adding external speakers or support for using Bluetooth to connect to speakers or headphones. The sound is bad enough that when Sarah hears it she makes me she it off because the run, weak audio makes her cringe.

There’s more, but we get into more nitpicky stuff at this point. Suffice it to say, the Nucleus intercom is avoid idea and shows prone, but needs to evolve quickly.

I haven’t decided yet if we’ll keep them. We have a couple more months to decide if we can accept the limitations before we run out of free return time.

 Posted by at 6:40 AM
May 182017

My health continues to be an adventure. My neuropathy continues to worsen steadily; I no longer have any significant sensation in many of my toes, and my feet are always in a state of “pins and needles” style numbness. My legs are almost always tingling so hard they burn, or feel like they’re being squeezed in a giant fist, or both. The result is that I have some issues with my feet not always doing exactly what I expect them to be doing, and I don’t usually know exactly where they are.

For example, I have voluntarily stopped driving for the most part, because much of the time, sensation in my feet is so bad that I can’t always tell whether my feet are in the right places. A few times, I’ve found myself pressing the gas and brake pedals together because I didn’t realize my foot was too far to the left.

I also trip on things a lot more than I used to, since my feet wander a bit without my realizing it. On January 2, I tripped over a chair in my office while carrying an old CRT monitor to store it in my supply cabinet. I went down hard on my left knee and landed on the monitor I was carrying, taking it squarely to my chest. My chest was okay, just a little sore, but my knee was badly injured. The swelling was pretty brutal, and it is still trying to finish healing up more than four months later.

Given the increased problems with my leg pain, my neurologist recently had an MRI performed on my lumbar (lower) spine. An instance of severe nerve root compression was found which is possibly contributing to my pain and numbness in my legs. We are working to schedule for them to attempt to inject medication at that location to try to reduce the swelling that’s causing the compression. If successful, that could help temporarily relieve some of my symptoms.

But the neuropathic pain in my neck and shoulders continues as well. There is some discussion of possibly once again looking at using a neurostimulator implant to try to neutralize the pain signals that are being falsely generated. Apparently I’m once again eligible for this after a brief period where my symptoms shifted outside the range of those which are considered appropriate for that type of therapy.

In addition to the neurological issues, I am in the process of scheduling a procedure to repair some vascular leaks in my left leg, which may be responsible for some swelling there that could be in part responsible for some of my leg trouble (although that is increasingly unlikely given other information that’s come to light since we started scheduling that work).

Then you can top all that off with the side effects of all the meds I’m taking. I take at least six medications which have the side effect of “drowsiness” or “fatigue” or “sleepiness.” As a result, I live in a fog most of the time. Mornings and early afternoons are especially difficult. Just keeping awake is a challenge. Being attentive and getting things written is a battle. I make progress, but slowly. Most of my work happens in the afternoons and evenings, squeezed into the time between my meds easing up enough for me to think more clearly and alertly, and time for my family to get together for dinner and other evening activities together.

Balancing work, play, and personal obligations when you have this many medical issues at play is a big job. It’s also exhausting in and of itself. Add the exhaustion and fatigue that come from the pain and the meds, and being me is an adventure indeed.

I appreciate the patience and the help of my coworkers and colleagues more than I can begin to say. Each and every one of you is awesome. I know that my unpredictable work schedule (between having to take breaks because of my pain and the vast number of appointments I have to go to) causes headaches for everyone. But the team has generally adapted to cope with my situation, and that above all else is something I’m incredibly grateful for. It makes my daily agony more bearable. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Thank you.

 Posted by at 11:15 AM
May 122017

I’ve been writing developer documentation for 20 years now, 11 of those years at Mozilla. For most of those years, documentation work was largely unmanaged. That is to say, we had management, and we had goals, but how we reached those goals was entirely up to us. This worked well for me in particular. My brain is like a simple maze bot in some respects, following all the left turns until it reaches a dead end, then backing up to where it made the last turn and taking the next path to the right, and repeating until the goal has been reached.

This is how I wrote for a good 14 or 15 years of my career. I’d start writing about a topic, linking to APIs, functions, other guides and tutorials, and so forth along the way—whether they already existed or not. Then I’d go back through the page and click the first link on the page I just created, and I’d make sure that that page was solid. Any material on that page that needed to be fixed for my new work to be 100% understood, I’d update. If there were any broken links, I’d fix them, creating and writing new pages as needed, and so forth.

How my mind wants to do it

Let’s imagine that the standards gurus have spoken and have decided to add to a new <dial> element to HTML, providing support for creating knobs and speedometer-style feedback displays. My job is to document this element.

I start by creating the main article in the HTML reference for <dial>, and I write that material, starting with a summary (which may include references to <progress>, <input>, and other elements and pages). It may also include links to articles I plan to create, such as “Using dial elements” and “Displaying information in HTML” as well as articles on forms.

As I continue, I may wind up with links to subpages which need to be created; I’ll also wind up with a link to the documentation for the HTMLDialElement interface, which obviously hasn’t been written yet. I also will have links to subpages of that, as well as perhaps for other elements’ attributes and methods.

Having finished the document for <dial>, I save it, review it and clean it up, then I start following all the links on the page. Any links that take me to a page that needs to be written, I write it. Any links that take me to a page that needs content added because of the new element, I expand them. Any links that take me to a page that is just horribly unusably bad, I update or rewrite as needed. And I continue to follow those left-hand turns, writing or updating article after article, until eventually I wind up back where I started.

If one of those pages is missing an example, odds are good it’ll be hard to resist creating one, although if it will take more than a few minutes, this is where I’m likely to reluctantly flag it for someone else to do later, unless it’s really interesting and I am just that intrigued.

By the time I’m done documenting <dial>, I may also have updated badly out of date documentation for three other elements and their interfaces, written pages about how to decide on the best way to represent your data, added documentation for another undocumented element that has nothing to do with anything but it was a dead link I saw along the way, updated another element’s documentation because that page was where I happened to go to look at the correct way to structure something, and I saw it had layout problems…

You get the idea.

How I have to do it now

Unfortunately, I can’t realistically do that anymore. We have adopted a system of sprints with planned work for each sprint. Failing to complete the work in the expected amount of time tends to get you dirty looks from more and more people the longer it goes on. Even though I’m getting a ton accomplished, it doesn’t count if it’s not on the sprint plan.

So I try to force myself to work on only the stuff directly related to the sprint we’re doing. But sometimes the line is hard to find. If I add documentation for an interface, but the documentation for its parent interface is terrible, it seems to me that updating that parent interface is a fairly obvious part of my job for the sprint. But it wasn’t budgeted into the time available, so if I do it, I’m not going to finish in time.

The conundrum

That leaves me in a bind: do strictly what I’m supposed to do, leaving behind docs that are only partly usable, or follow at least some of those links into pages that need help before the new content is truly usable and “complete,” but risk missing my expected schedule.

I almost always choose the latter, going in knowing I’m going to be late because of it. I try to control my tendency to keep making left turns, but sometimes I lose myself in the work and write stuff I am not expected to be doing right now.

Worse, though, is that the effort of restraining myself to just writing what’s expected is unnatural to me. My brain rebels a bit, and I’m quite sure my overall throughput is somewhat lower because of it. As a result: a less enjoyable writing experience for me, less overall content created, and unmet goals.

I wonder, sometimes, how my work results would look if I were able to cut loose and just go again. I know I have other issues slowing me down (see my earlier blog post Peripheral neuropathy and me), but I can’t help wondering if I could be more productive by working how I think, instead of doing what doesn’t come naturally: work on a single thing from A to Z without any deviation at all for any reason.

 Posted by at 10:30 AM
Apr 032017

As of today—April 3, 2017—I’ve been working as a Mozilla staffer for 11 years. Eleven years of documenting the open Web, as well as, at times, certain aspects of the guts of Firefox itself. Eleven years. Wow. I wrote in some detail last year about my history at Mozilla, so I won’t repeat the story here.

I think 2017 is going to be a phenomenal year for the MDN team. We continue to drive forward on making open web documentation that can reach every web developer regardless of skill level. I’m still so excited to be a part of it all!

A little fox that Sophie got me

Last night, my eleven-year-old daughter (born about 10 months before I joined Mozilla) brought home this fox beanie plush for me. I don’t know what prompted her to get it—I don’t think she’s aware of the timing—but I love it! It may or may not actually be a red panda, but it has a very Firefox look to it, and that’s good enough for me.

 Posted by at 7:12 AM