About: Justin McDowell


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The First Twelve Seconds

A few nights ago I saw Don’t Breathe, which was a scary, home-invasion movie that I enjoyed quite a bit.

But this post is not about the movie that I paid for. This post is about one of the trailers that played before that movie, for the new Resident Evil movie.

If you haven’t seen any of the five previous Resident Evil movies, let me assure you, you are not missing out on high art. They do provide a certain level of unabashed fun that seems to get better as the series progresses. They’re the kind of pulpy movies that I like to call let’s-make-a-movie movies where you can imagine two people sitting at a diner, trying to find an outlet for their absurd ideas. Think John Carpenter and Kurt Russel’s movies, or Vin Diesel’s Pitch Black series. In this case it’s actress Milla Jovovich and director Paul W. S. Anderson.

Within twelve seconds of the trailer starting, I knew I was going to be jazzed about what was coming up. Twelve seconds. In fact, I was only half-paying attention to the screen in front of me (my date was at my side) and I had no idea that it was a Resident Evil movie until later in the trailer, but I knew I was in for a ride. What happened in those twelve seconds? Watch along with me, and I’ll narrate, below.

What We See

The official trailer for the sixth Resident Evil movie.
  • Fade from black.
  • Guns N’ Roses’s “Paradise City” plays.
  • We see a motorcycle of the crotch-rocket variety.
  • A woman in a black coat walks up to the motorcycle and starts the ignition.
  • A computer interface indicates “ENGINE ENGAGED”.
  • She removes her thumb and we can see it uses Touch-ID–style fingerprint recognition.

The computer interface has a subtle cue I didn’t catch (an Umbrella Corporation logo), but otherwise at this point, I have absolutely no idea that this is a Resident Evil movie. Furthermore, I hate Guns N’ Roses, I especially hate “Paradise City”, I think crotch rockets are kinda douchey, and I didn’t even realize the figure mounting the motorcycle was a woman. (Like I said, I was only half-paying attention.)

The opening shot from the new “Resident Evil” mobie
The opening shot from the sixth Resident Evil movie

Yet for some reason I was jazzed about this movie. After only twelve seconds! I even said to my girlfriend: “I don’t know why, but I think this is going to be a fun movie.” It was enough to keep me glued to the screen for the following twelve seconds, which are far less revealing, until I saw the hanging corpses and the sign that explicitly drops familiar names like “Racoon City” and “Umbrella Corporation”. I was sold after that, but those initial twelve seconds stayed with me all through Don’t Breathe until I finally had a chance to talk it out with my date.

What It Signifies

Looking back at it with perhaps a little too much analysis, here’s what I think.

  • “Paradise City” is an obnoxious song, but to pull it off these days, you have to embrace a certain ironic, plebeian corniness. In other words, it’s dumb, but it’s fun if you don’t think about it too much. Dumb fun almost always equals action movie.
  • The fashion, though shrouded and nearly cropped out of the frame altogether, revealed just enough attention to detail that I picked up on its intent to be fashionable: half her coat is shredded, but it’s a flattering cut and you can sense that it’s made from good materials. Plus, fingerless gloves. When fashion has a place in an action movie, you know you’re going to see people kicking ass and looking good while doing it. You’re not going to take it too seriously.
  • The ridiculous computer interface with the fingerprint ignition sealed the deal, giving off a Marvelly, science fictiony, Iron Man-y vibe.

I’m so impressed by what those twelve seconds managed to communicate. It took you, dear reader, way longer than that to read my analysis, but it all flashed through my head at the speed of intuition. As a designer, I spend a lot of time sweating the tiny details of my work. Sometimes I wonder if I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. After all, as the cynics cry, most people will never truly understand what I put into it. Is it really worth the hour of development time to shave off 300 milliseconds of load time?

The UI on Resident Evil’s Touch ID-enabled motorcycle
The UI of The Umbrella Corporation’s Touch ID-enabled motorcycle.

This trailer reinforced to me that, yes, paying heed to the corners and textures and typefaces does matter. Though they can be subtle, your considerations signal your intention to the viewer or to the user. They may not notice it or, if they did, even be able to deconstruct it as I did tonight, but the care and the craft will come through.

There was just one thing that I found disappointing about the whole trailer. It was the subheading reveal at the end. It has nothing to do with typography or the visual effects, just that it calls the movie “The Final Chapter”. Bummer.

Nobody Will Read Your Welcome Letter

I have to put a welcome letter on a website. I have to do this because the welcome letter is in the printed program, and if it’s in the printed program, it also has to be on the website. There, it either takes up valuable space for useful content, or it appears as a PDF that no one wants to download, especially to read a welcome letter.

A welcome letter is a terrible thing for a website. There is no audience that wishes to read a welcome letter. They are fiction. They do not exist. People are on your website because they want information, not to read the welcoming platitudes delivered from a CEO, or president, or artist. This kind of content gets in the way of the useful content.

People might read your welcome letter in print. Oh yes, at least a few of them will. But make no mistake, they’re not reading it because they want to read it. They will because they’re currently sitting in your welcome lecture and they’re bored. They will because it’s socially acceptable to read the provided program while tuning out the welcome speaker. They will because it’s not acceptable to read anything on your phone while listening to the speaker. Even if they’re reading the welcome letter you put on the website—which of course they’re not, because the internet is full of much more useful things to read.

I put the welcome letter on the website because I had to, but I put it where nobody is likely to read it, because nobody will read it, no matter where I put it. I’m not just being smug. I know this because of the regular user testing my team has done. In these sessions, we watch real people skip vast swaths of content, many times scrolling straight down to the bottom with wild disregard for The Fold.

It was a political move, I admit, burying the link. It can be hard to convince people who write welcome letters that nobody wants to read them, in part because the writers put time into them and do provide them with the best intentions. Sometimes it’s best to pick your battles when you’re working with a client. Sometimes there’s not enough time or energy to spare for a discussion or argument over idealistic details. But sometimes your political concession doesn’t matter. Nobody asked me where the welcome letter was ultimately posted, because even when the clients use the website themselves, they have no interest in its welcome content.

Passing Away In Pixels

I got suspicious when Lauren’s chat bubbles turned green. She used an iPhone, so when we kept in touch over text, it was via iMessage, which uses blue chat bubbles. When one of those bubbles turns green, that means it was sent over SMS, old school. There are a number of reasons this could happen, but seeing those green bubbles, coupled with a complete lack of response, and a noticeable absence spanning several months, I got suspicious.

I had hoped it wasn’t true, but sure enough, the top search result for her name was her obituary.

It took me a little while to piece it all together. The article said she died back in February—five months before I found out—but it didn’t feel like I had last talked to her that long ago. I scrolled back through the unanswered green bubbles and discovered that we last conversed just three days before an irresponsible driver crashed into her boyfriend’s car on the highway. That I last spoke with her so close to her death is the one bit of fortune I’ve felt about the whole tragedy.

Lauren was a friend whom I had known primarily on the internet. We first met way back when LiveJournal was a thing that people legitimately used. It was kind of a weird time when personal blogging was still underground (they didn’t even call it blogging yet). It was a time when your life could be public-yet-private; it wasn’t the big personal-brand–self-promotion machine that we often find with social networks today. It was easy to get personal, and to learn the intimate workings of another person’s mind. It was through these weird little daily journal entries and comment sections that Lauren and I kindled a friendship. As time progressed, the communication channels changed, but we stayed connected through it all. Not just following one another from service to service, but following up, checking in, doling out advice, providing comfort, and celebrating wins.

Lauren was a close and enduring friend of mine. We had known each other for more than a decade. That’s longer than I’ve had my dog. Longer, in fact, than I’ve known most of my closest IRL friends. She was a welcome, if nearly invisible, presence in my life. So, when I found out about her passing five months after the fact, and only through cleverness on my part, I have to admit that it stung fiercely. But I get it. Just as she flew under the radar among my family and friends, I was just positive her loved ones would have no idea who I was. (I did write her parents a letter expressing my sadness and condolences and, thankfully, they shared it with her best friend, who reached out and said that she did know about me. It was a big relief.)

Living on the internet has certainly felt surreal at times, and perhaps nothing is more surreal than when someone you mostly know through pixels passes away. There’s just not a standard cultural protocol to expect. I think it’s worth considering how the friends your friends don’t know about can get news of your passing.

In the past, I’ve talked casually with my brother about how I want him to tell my online friends when I die, but having been affected by just such an event so recently, it spurred me to actually put how that should work into writing. With that in mind, here are some ideas I have if you’d like to do the same thing.

Get a Password Manager

A password manager is not only a great idea for your personal security (and sanity), it can also provide the keys to your online identity after your death. It can sometimes be harder to gain access to a deceased person’s gaming account than it can be to get the title to their home! I use a password manager called 1Password. It stores websites and their corresponding usernames and passwords behind a secure master password. It also has browser plug-ins that automatically log in for you. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll hear more about what you can do with a password manager to manage your online identity postmortem later on in this article.

If you don’t want to buy a password manager, you can use Apple’s Keychain to keep track of your logins. I’ve just never found it to be quite as intuitive to fit into my workflow.

Your password manager is protected by a master password, that way your passwords can’t be accessed by just anybody. But there’s the issue of getting the master password to the people who need it. You won’t exactly be in a position to let them know what it is yourself, after all.

It’s never a good idea to share your passwords with anybody else, but I’m fortunate enough to have someone whom I can trust with it implicitly. He has my passwords written down—in a secure note in his password manager, of course! (You’ll learn more about secure notes later on in this article.) But this only works as long as one of us survives the other. If (heaven forbid) we happen to go at the same time, I realistically need a better back-up plan.

Get a Safe Deposit Box

I think a safe deposit box is ideal. These are incredibly secure lock boxes that are stored inside a bank’s vault, and they’re pretty inexpensive to rent. The last one I had cost about $6 per year. I stored other important things in there, too, like my car title and passport.

And you’ll feel super-cool anytime you get to go into the vault, turn the two keys simultaneously, and go into the little private room to rummage through your box.

Some people have a personal safe, which can work, too, but then you’ll need to somehow pass on the combination for that, too. Like in a safe deposit box!

Create a Secure Note

As I said before, you can do a lot more with 1Password than just keep track of passwords. In particular, you can create secure notes. These are simple text documents like you’d write in any plaintext editor, but they’re stored securely behind your master password. I’ve written up a secure note that has all the instructions necessary to take care of my digital affairs.

I’ve covered a number of things, and I intend to keep adding more as I think of them, or as my life continues to change and evolve. After all, who knows if I’ll outlive Facebook or if Facebook will outlive me. Here are a few things you may want to think about when you write yours:

  • Who should manage, clean up, organize, and back-up your computer?
  • What should happen to your website? Do you want a memorial posted somewhere on it? Additionally, somebody’s gotta keep paying the domain and web hosting fees. Are you setting aside some money to keep this going, or would you prefer it be shut down and archived privately?
  • Who should know about this explicitly? This could be specific people that you’re emotionally close to, or a general social network. I’ve personally written up three tweets to go out to my Twitter followers. That way my family will post exactly the information I’d like my followers to know. Should your Facebook friend list, YouTube subscribers, or your Snapchat followers also know? Write down in your note how you want that to play out.
  • Additionally, Facebook can memorialize your account. You can explicitly choose a friend who has the power to make that happen. After an account has been memorialized, it can’t be edited ever again. This is another good reason to make your password available through a password manager. Your family can then go in and remove any embarrassing status updates they don’t want forever associated with your name before they memorialize your account. I’ve even told my family to change my photo to something “non-cheesy” where I “look kinda cool”, just so I can look my best after my final rest.

There are probably other things you can do that I haven’t thought about yet, but this is going to be a personal process, no matter what. You might find certain things to be way more important than other things, and your needs may change and evolve over time. It’s up to you to make sure your note is current with your wishes.

Talk to Your Lawyer

All this said, it’s a good idea to talk to a real, live lawyer, too. I haven’t done this yet. Despite this article, I haven’t actually put a lot of consideration into my physical assets at this time. But if you’ve already got a will drawn up, or you’re planning one now, you’re going to want to make sure it has all the information about your digital life included in it, too.

I feel better knowing that all of my friends will know when I’ve died, including the ones I’ve never met IRL. My virtual friends are just as important to me, but it doesn’t help if nobody knows who to tell, or what to say. Taking some time to reflect on which sites and services are important to you will give peace of mind to yourself, as well as those who survive you.