Movie Review: The Grey

I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

The Grey, starring Liam Neeson, is appropriately named. It is a dark, dreary slog of a movie. This is not a good time adventure story about a walk through the woods. This is a tale of survival, against all odds, in the most inhospitable terrain imaginable.

Liam Neeson plays a man who works in a remote oil plant somewhere deep in the cold back woods of Alaska. He’s an armed security guard, of sorts. His job is to protect the men who work at the plant from the locals – the locals, in this case, being wild wolves. He’s basically a hunter on guard.

That’s about as much background as we get on our hero before we are thrust into the thick of the story. He and a bunch of other men from the plant are on a charter jet together, leaving the plant to return to the big city where their families and their lives await them. Unfortunately they encounter heavy weather, and their flight never reaches it’s destination. Instead they crash land in the middle of ice world nowhere, Alaska. A handful of men survive the crash, including our hero. From there on it’s a survival tale, man against wolf and wilderness.

This is not an easy movie to enjoy on the surface. It’s basically an exercise in realistically exploring all of the terrible ways you could die in the frozen woods of Alaska. There prove to be many. There are some graphic scenes of people meeting terrible fates in this film. I’m not really into that, and I wasn’t expecting it to be as graphic as it was from the previews. It’s not always an easy movie to watch. People of fragile constitutions should probably skip this film.

It is an interesting movie though, artistically. The majority of the film is tints of black, white, and gray, and sprinkled bits of dark blue and green keep it barely above freezing. It’s dark dreary landscapes give way to occasional scenes of breathtaking beauty. I think this is a movie for people who have an interest in the outdoors, and in testing themselves against the odds. It certainly does a worthy job of showing us what a test it could be.

The Grey is most certainly a sad movie, and I have to admit I did not like the way it ends. However, the acting, directing, and cinematography were terrific. It’s worth watching if you can stomach the thrills, the chills, and all the blood that gets spilled. Just be sure everyone knows what they’re in for.

You can read more about The Grey at Yahoo! Movies, Rotten Tomatoes, or IMDb. How to Lose a Customer & Generate Bad PR

For a while now I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a series of blog posts about bad design and bad user experience on popular Web sites – the little things I notice that inspire me to tell those sites, “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!“. Today I had an experience that has finally inspired me to kick this series off. A Case Study in How to Turn a Bad User Experience into a Lost Customer, and Bad Customer Service into Bad PR

Part I: A Little Background

I am somebody who has never been enthusiastic about online dating. Call me old fashioned, but if I ever get married and settle down, I really, really don’t want the story of how I met my wife to involve an algorithm. I know online dating has worked for a lot of people, and that’s great, but for me it’s a notion that is just completely lacking in anything close to the romance I hope to have in my life story.

However, at 37 I’m still single, and the women I’ve dated over the years just haven’t worked out in the long run. So, the other day I was talking with a good friend, and he brought up He said a lot of good things about it, and urged me to give it a chance. For whatever reason, I finally decided, “OK, what the hell, I’ll give it a shot. Why not, maybe I’ll meet someone outside of my normal flight patterns.”

I went to the Web site, signed up for the 3 month package (the cheapest one that lets you do everything you’d want to do on the site), and off I went. …Now I don’t know if you’ve ever tried online dating, but getting started is a royal pain in the ass. They ask you tons and tons of questions, you have to click through page after page of forms, and it’s a major hassle all the way around.

I did it, though, and I finally got to the very end, where there was one last question remaining: “About Me & Who I’m Looking For” …Have you ever heard of a more open-ended question in your life? Unlike all the other ones, which were generally multiple choice or only required a sentence or two, this one was like the essay question at the end of a final exam. It was a huge box, and you could say anything you wanted. At first I just put like 5 quick sentences that basically amounted to, “I’m a fun lovin’ guy, and here are some nice to haves, and I’ll get back to this later…”

I walked away from it for a while, but eventually I came back and decided to give it a real try. After all, women like words and feelings and stuff, right? I figured if I’m paying for this service, I had better actually put something witty, funny, and honest in there or I wouldn’t stand a chance and I’d just be wasting my time and money. So I sat down and started typing away.

Part II: A Terrible User Experience

Now here’s the bad usability part: An hour later I was finally done and had it to my liking (Hey, it’s not easy digging deep and describing yourself and what you want in a woman, don’t judge!).  So, I read it one more time, felt generally satisfied with my work, and hit the submit button.

Did my profile update with all my brilliantly described deeply personal details and desires in life? No, of course not. What happened instead? The page refreshed and I lost everything I had just spent an hour laboring over! Disaster! To add insult to injury it presented me with a login screen like it didn’t know me.  “…Didn’t I just tell you everything I want in life, and now you don’t remember my name?!”

Now, I’m a Web developer. I know exactly what happened here. The stupid user session timed out and it logged me out. Great, site security, I get it. But come on! is a dating site. They have to know that formulating your thoughts for something like this and writing them all down isn’t easy, and that people are going to spend a long time thinking about this stuff when they’re writing (the ones who are actually trying anyway).

A well designed dating site would find a fancy way to save the user’s text before requiring another login (hey Match guys, heard of Ajax?!). This, my friends, was the crappiest user experience I’ve ever had. Why? Because I had put so much time, energy and emotion into trying to formulate something good, and it was so very personal.  To have it all just wiped away was beyond frustrating, it was a major slap in the face. Even if I could write something as good or better than what I had, the last thing in the world I would do would be to waste another hour of my life trying to recreate it from scratch.

Part of my impatience for this experience was the personal nature of it and all the effort I’d put in and lost without recourse. The other part, I’ll admit, is that I’m a frikkin’ Web developer, and I know exactly what happened here, how completely simple it would have been to avoid, and how utterly incompetent the product and development teams at are for allowing this to happen on their site. Guys – when you’re gonna’ auto-log someone out, you check the darn field, and if it has a value, you save it somewhere. Better yet, as people are typing, you intermittently save a draft. Or how about this, you warn them before you’re going to log them out. ANY of these simple product features would have saved my pain. But no, shipped a crappy product, simple as that.

Part III: A Terrible Customer Service Experience

When that little episode transpired, I decided then and there that I was done. I quit, I’m over it, see you later. I didn’t want to bother with online dating in the first place, and now I was pissed off. Thanks, you just lost a customer.

I went to the account settings page on the site, and immediately canceled my account then and there. Buh-bye.  …The only problem was, I had just paid these bozos $72 for the 3 month subscription, and I couldn’t find anything that told me how to get a refund. All I could find was a customer service number, and it indicated that they were closed until 10 AM the next day (it was late). OK, fine, at least I had a customer service number. I resolved to call them in the morning and crashed out for the night.

The next day came, and I did indeed call customer service as soon as I had a break at work.  Now this post is getting long, so I’ll cut to the chase…   I spoke with a very nice woman, who politely informed me that since I had used the messaging part of the service, I was no longer eligible for a refund.  Never mind that I had been a member for a total of under 8 hours when I cancelled my account – Never mind that I had actually only sent 4 messages, each only 2 or 3 sentences long (these were basically intro notes like, “Hi, you say you’re a foodie. What are some of your favorite restaurants?”) – Never mind that I hadn’t even received a single reply yet… has a corporate policy that once you send a single message, no refunds, period, end of discussion, no exceptions.

Believe me, I politely told her my entire story in great detail, explained the entire usability issue on their site, and did everything I could to be patient and reasonable with her. When she flatly denied me citing terms of service and standard policy, I finally asked to speak to her manager, which she obliged.

When he finally got on the phone (after a long hold) I spoke with him at great length. I told him the whole story, made clear that I was in no way trying to rip anyone off or take advantage of their service, I was simply a brand new customer who had a bad experience in my initial usage of their site, and all I wanted was a refund. No dice. After trying everything I could to reason with him, I finally asked to speak to his manager. He said OK, and again I was on hold for another 5 minutes.

Finally a very polite woman came on the line and informed me that she was from the corporate office – I guess I had been in call center hell. Whatever. Same routine, I explained to her that look, I’m a Web developer, I get it. Sites have bugs. All I want is my money back. I barely used the service, was enrolled for less than 8 hours, I know your policy because these people already explained it to me, but come on, you seem like a reasonable woman, I’m sure you can understand. I had a bad experience, I’m not asking for anything extraordinary, all I want is a refund.

“I’m sorry sir, but our policy states that once you’ve used the message service you are no longer eligible for a refund. It’s in our terms of service. No exceptions.”  …Yeah, thanks, your peons already explained that to me.

I went so far as to say, in my final exasperated attempt to reason with her, “Look, I’m not threatening you here, but you realize that when customers have bad experiences like this, and are unable to reconcile their grievances fairly with a company, that’s when they do things like take to Twitter and write blog posts and start telling all their friends about how horribly they were treated, right? You know that that’s how companies generate bad will and lose customers, right?…”   No dice.

So, I said, “Thank you for doing the best you can, I know this isn’t your fault, but the company you work for is clueless and this is completely f#@&ing ridiculous!” (or something very close to that) – and I hung up on her.

Guess what happened next? Here we are.

Part IV: The Right Way To Build a Product and Treat Customers

The sad thing is, this all could have been avoided. Let’s talk about a company that understands how to build great products and treat their customers. There are plenty, but Apple is the one that comes to mind first.

As of today, Apple is once again the most valuable company in the world. That should really be all I need to say. But I’ll say just a little more.  When you buy an Apple product, it usually just works. They pay attention to the details. They understand their users. They don’t get it right all the time, but in general they’ve thought of the scenarios that are most likely to come up when a normal user is using their product the way it was intended to be used, and worked out all the problems that might arise (like, you know, logging someone out in the middle of asking them to write a long essay about their deepest and innermost feelings and desires). Apple builds great products, and everyone knows that.

BUT, sometimes Apple gets it wrong too, they’re human. Even if they don’t, it turns out that sometimes when people get their shiny new toy out of the box, it just doesn’t turn out to be what they wanted after all. So how does Apple handle this? They handle it perfectly: You get a 2 week return policy, no questions asked. Product is opened? No problem. You used it to write your dissertation before you returned it to us? No problem. As long as you’re within the 2 week window, they take it back without issue, you get your refund, and everyone is happy. This is how great customer service works.

If Apple operated like, their policy would state that you can’t return your iPhone once you’ve sent a single text message, no exceptions. Further, they wouldn’t warn you about this limitation, they’d expect you to read it in the users manual. They might not be out of business right now, but I guarantee you that they wouldn’t be crushing their earnings forecasts and dominating the technology world at a time when everyone else is happy just to find new paying customers.

So back to … I’ve explained that their site had a major user experience flaw that could have been avoided if they were paying attention to how people actually use their service. I’ve detailed how that led directly to me going from being a happy new customer to a frustrated ex-customer in under 20 minutes.

I’ve also explained that their customer service staff, while certainly friendly and polite, were completely incapable of offering me the most basic accommodation available to a frustrated customer: a simple refund. I’ve explained that I took the time to go 2 levels up in management to a representative from their corporate office, and still wasn’t able to get anywhere with my request. You’ll recall that this ridiculous failure in customer care happened within 24 hours of me signing up for their service, and is dictated by a corporate policy which even a representative from the corporate office had no flexibility to waive, no exceptions – just because I sent a 3 sentence message to someone.

All of that is already more than enough to have moved me from being frustrated to being angry and bitter. But the cherry on top, the single salient fact that really proves to me that doesn’t care about its customer and has no clue how to handle someone who’s upset with their service – even in a case where it was clearly their own buggy service which caused such frustration to begin with (as opposed to me being upset because I just couldn’t get a date or something) – is that at no point did anyone even attempt to offer me any other form of recourse. How about, “I’m so sorry sir, let us give you an upgrade.”  Or maybe, “We’re terribly sorry, can we give you a 6 month free extension to make up for your unpleasant experience? We’d really like to make it up to you because we value you as a customer.”  Nope, nothing like that.  Even if you’re not going to give me a refund, isn’t that on page 1 of the book in Customer Service 101?!  Mind you, that’s definitely not what I wanted, but at least it would have been something.  Instead, all I got was a lot of time on hold and the most worthless of corporate lines, “We’re sorry, but that’s our policy and we can’t help you.” …Three times.

Part V: Now What

So now what happens? I don’t know. is lucky, I’m not a world famous blogger. They didn’t know that, but they might have made a safe bet.  However, what I am is a guy that won’t just walk away quietly. I know how well designed products and services work. I know how good customer service works. I had a legitimate complaint, I asked for the most basic thing I could have in the form of a refund, and I got nothing from them. So now I’m doing what any angry customer has every right to do: I’m calling them out on it as loudly as I can.

So, maybe nobody will ever read this. If so, that’s fine. I feel a little better already just for venting it all out in this post.  But then again, who knows what might happen? You can be certain that if you’re reading this post, I’ve already sent it to my 600+ facebook friends. That’s not a lot of eyeballs, but it’s something. I guarantee I’ll also tweet this as far and wide as I can. Just because I alluded to the risk and Miss Corporate flat out ignored me, I’ll even go so far as to send this to a few of the most prominent tech blogs. After all, covering the tech business is their business, right? If bad site design and bad customer service from a leading dating site isn’t tech business, I don’t know what is. They may not care to write about my little tale, but they’ll get their chance.

Why go so far? Do I just have an axe to grind? Yes, of sorts. I’m not generally a vindictive person. I’m not out to damage their business or anything. I simply want them to read this post, realize they made a mistake, and make it right.  …If had simply given me a refund to begin with I’d still think their site sucks, but none of this messy blogging business would have ever happened. But they didn’t. They blew me off like I don’t matter, like their customers don’t matter, and that’s just not right.

All I want is my $72 back. That’s it. I promise I’ll never log on to again, and we can both go our happy separate ways.

…But if they can’t give me that, and until I update this post you can know that they haven’t, then the least I feel obliged to do is tell it like it really is at Why? Because I don’t know what else they could do to get someone as pissed off as I am right now – but I do know that whatever they do wrong, they won’t do anything to fix it. That’s not how good companies operate. Companies that suck deserve to be taken to task – and I’m just the guy to do it. Enough said.

Movie Review: My Week With Marilyn

Disclaimer: I’m not a movie critic. I’m just a guy that loves movies, and my reviews are written from that perspective. I’ll try to give you my opinion of this film, and tell you enough to get a sense for it, without giving anything important away. If that works for you, read on.

I give “My Week With Marilyn” 4 out of 5 stars.

Let me open by saying that I don’t know anything about Marilyn Monroe, beyond what everyone knows; I know she was the starlet of her era, and one of the most famous women of any era. She was beautiful, glamorous, and might have fooled around with President Kennedy at some point. That’s about what I know.

Given that minimal background, I didn’t go to this film with any preconceptions about whether it would be good or bad. A huge Marilyn fan might enjoy any movie about her, simply because it’s about her. I went to see this because the previews looked pretty good and it got good reviews.

I’m pleased to report that it is indeed an excellent film. It’s well done, and I really enjoyed it.

This is a straight ahead drama. There are moments of levity and humor, but this is a film about people. It’s not too heavy, mind you, but it is all about the characters – their emotions, their challenges, and their relationships with each other. In particular, it’s about the relationship of the two lead characters (no surprise there given the title).

This is a period piece. It’s told from the perspective of Colin Clark, a young man living in England in 1956. At the age of 23, Colin decides he wants to get into the movie business. It’s a true story, based on the diary of the real Colin Clark, written during the filming of the movie, ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’, which starred Sir Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe.

Colin is a lowly assistant on the set of this film, but by some turn of fate, he and Marilyn strike up something of a friendship along the way. As you can guess, he is quite taken by her – and she finds him to be refreshingly sweet, innocent, and honest. Where this friendship takes them I will leave to the film to reveal. The journey they share is not too surprising – but nor is it entirely predictable.

This is a soft, sweet film, and also a fairly quiet film. Quiet enough, in fact, that throughout the movie I kept feeling guilty as I reached into my popcorn bag because I felt like the rustling might be distracting my neighbors in the theater. While no single scene is overly critical to the story, at the same time every scene feels like it matters, if you allow yourself to care about the characters, because every scene is rich with their emotions and details that help us understand who they are.

The supporting cast is excellent, including strong performances by Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier, and Judi Dench (who’s always terrific) as Sybil Thorndike. A variety of other cast members also do their part to offer solid support along the way.

As one would hope, and a film like this requires, the principles carry the day. I don’t recall seeing Eddie Redmayne in a film before, but he does a nice job as young Colin. He brings a bright eyed enthusiasm to the roll that just makes you root for the kid from the start.

Michelle Williams, as Marilyn, is fantastic. Taking on such a prominent real life figure has got to be intimidating for a young actress, but Williams hits it out of the park. I expect she’ll at least get a nomination for best actress at the Oscars. She may not win, but her Marilyn Monroe is in turns both glamorous, beautiful, and full of life, yet vulnerable, afraid, and maybe even lonely. I don’t know if the real Marilyn was this way, but I bought it completely. Williams is simply terrific.

I enjoy period pieces in general, and this one did a fine job to my casual eye. The costumes, sets, etc., were all well done, and the cinematography and directing were unremarkable but perfectly fine. I usually only notice those things when they’re incredible, or incredibly bad. Here they were neither. The script, while heavy with character emotion as I’ve said, was generally upbeat and fun. It’s not a comedy by any measure, but this movie is a good time.

My last though – while one might think this is a straight up chick flick, the fact that it’s told from young Colin’s perspective makes it approachable, I think, to the average guy. I mean, what guy can’t imagine the delights of getting carried away on an adventure with Marilyn Monroe, am I right fellas? 😉

The final word: A sweet story and a beautifully crafted film about a small town kid’s experience with a larger-than-life personality. A simple film, but simply delightful.

You can find out more about My Week With Marilyn at Yahoo Movies, Rotten Tomatoes, and IMDb.

Deadmau5 at XS in Las Vegas, 1/2/12

Here’s the only other video I shot during my Las Vegas adventure – Deadmau5 DJing live at Club XS in the Wynn on 1/2/12 (the first 15 mins of his set). This was the opening night of his new residency at XS, and also happened to be his birthday. On top of that, the Mayor of Las Vegas has apparently officially declared January 2 to be Deadmau5 Day, how wild is that?!

I’d never been to XS, but I will definitely go back. Gorgeous venue, cool crowd, good bartenders, and the security was even pretty cool. This night was the most fun I’ve had at any club in Las Vegas so far. Check it out!

Fireworks in Las Vegas, New Year’s Eve 2012

Hello again, and happy new year everyone! I hope that the holidays treated you well, and that you ended 2011 on a high note (some higher than others no doubt)!

I had a really busy week myself. First I flew down to Los Angeles for Christmas with the fam, then it was off to Las Vegas to ring in the new year with a BANG (literally)! I had a great trip, did a ton of stuff, and really didn’t have a moment to sit down and blog anything until now – sorry about that!

I’m back in S.F. now, and glad to be home. After 4 nights in Vegas I admit that sitting through a day in the office felt just about like a life sentence in purgatory. Somehow I managed to make it through, and here I am finally able to post something.

A ton of stuff has happened in the past week, and there are so many ideas bouncing around in my head I’m kinda’ reeling. For now, though, since I’m honestly still a little wobbly from the trip, I’m going to keep it short and just share one of the highlights – a bit of the Vegas fireworks show on New Year’s Eve.

I’d never been to Vegas for NYE, so I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. I had no idea that they actually block the entire strip to traffic, nor did I know that it would be filled with literally hundreds of thousands of people right in the middle of the street (and countless more in the casinos and everywhere else) – it was way busier than I expected. Fortunately I’m a guy who loves big events and big crowds (when they’re happy crowds), so I was right in my element in the thick of the chaos.

The fireworks started at 12:00 AM, so I dutifully pulled out my iPhone just before the stroke of midnight and tried to record the entire scene. …Unfortunately, to my great dismay, I had been recording for 5 full minutes before I realized that I had never actually hit the frikkin’ record button on the phone! Oh man, I was so pissed when I finally realized my fumble. Major fail.

I almost put my phone away in disgust, but the show was long enough that I decided to still record at least part of it. Here it is for your viewing pleasure (below).  The whole show was probably 10 minutes long – this clip is 1:49 worth of it towards the end. It’s enough to give you the feel of it at least.

I was right by The Palazzo and Treasure Island casinos. They both had great pyrotechnic displays going. At the far end of the strip the Stratosphere was shooting fireworks from the top of the tower, which you can see a bit of. Down the strip the other way you can see a bit of the show from The Belagio. Sorry I couldn’t share more of it with you than this … I guess I’ll just have to go back again next year to get the whole thing! 😉

…Incidentally, for those of you who are keeping score, this is the first original video I’ve posted as part of The Observe & Retort project. It won’t be the last. Enjoy!

Movie Review: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

3 Days, 3 Movies. Let’s keep it goin’. Today’s movie: “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”

I give it 3 out of 5.

This marks the 4th installment of the Mission Impossible series. Once again mega star Tom Cruise returns as American Double Secret Super Spy Ethan Hunt. Going on missions, that are, impossible.

This was a fun movie. I go into a movie like this with low expectations. I want big explosions. I want cool stunts. I want bad guys that aren’t lame. I’d love to get a lot more than that, but that’s about what I expect.

This movie delivers everything I expect, and does so in style. In the tech department, they have their fair share of cool gadgets and weapons in this flick. In the special effects department, they blow up some pretty impressive things along the way. As far as stunts are concerned, our team certainly challenge death in new and spectacular ways in this film. Do they survive? You’ll have to watch and see.

Tom Cruise always manages to play a reliable hero. His team includes the spicy Paula Patton, the quirky Simon Pegg, and the rugged Jeremy Renner. All the actors were good enough, especially given the material. But again, it’s an action flick. Dialog and plot are pretty much gravy as long as you can keep me entertained along the way. This movie does it right, because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s got it’s share of comic relief thrown in to keep it light. If it were trying to be more serious, it would be more glaring how ridiculous the things they’re actually doing really are.

For the most part the acting and writing were pretty good throughout the movie – better than I expected (but don’t expect too much). …Unfortunately, at the very end the film kind of fizzled for me. It’s still a fun movie, and worth the price of admission. It could have ended so well. But after you think it’s over, it just kind of keeps going for another 5 or 10 minutes. I think they weren’t sure how to end it, so it just drags on a little long.

I know that doesn’t tell you much, but my goal is to let you know what to expect without giving anything away. Let me know if it’s working (Seriously, feel free to comment below.).

The final word: Great special effects and cinematography, decent acting and script, incredible on the IMAX – everything I look for in a big time mega action flick.

You can learn more about this movie at Yahoo or IMDb.


Now, Let’s Talk About Building A Brand

It’s Christmas-eve-eve. Friday, December 23rd, 2011. It’s been a strange year. A big year for social media and technology, a big year for democracy, or at least civil protest. Lots has happened this year.

One thing I notice when looking at the media landscape today is the fact that everyone is trying to figure this stuff, “social media”, out. It’s not just me. The news people on CNN and CBS now regularly include viewers’ facebook and twitter posts in the news broadcast. Are our opinions now news? I really don’t think so. It kinda’ bugs me to be honest. But I like that they’re experimenting at least.

So, here I am experimenting too. Yesterday I talked about marketing, and how I think about it in relation to all these different communication and distribution platforms, services, and channels. I didn’t get around to discussing my concept of creating a brand presence in the age of the social Web. So now, quickly…

I think it’s interesting that I own my user name (ObserveRetort) on all of the services that seem to be most important right now. It took a little bit of work to go and sign up for the whole lot, and it’s a bit of a hassle, but it’s really not hard. I’m very lucky that I happened upon a user name that nobody had used before. Now, I have a strong brand platform to build from. I have no idea how to best make use of all the different services out there (Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, etc.), but I know that I have both a voice, and control of my brand name, in the places that matter.

In a lot of ways I really wish I didn’t have to bother with all of it. It would be so much simpler if there were just 1 thing I could log in to that handled everything. …But then again, competition is good for innovation, and for the customer. Nobody wants to put all their eggs in one tech basket, right?

So, the good news is that you don’t need to worry about any of that. If I happen to do or discover anything even moderately cool on any of these endeavors, just stay tuned to this blog channel for the full report. I guarantee that you, kind reader, will be the first to know. If it’s worth doing, I’ll let you know just how you can go and do it yourself. How ’bout that?

Happy Holidays!