Design Lessons: Hotel Rooms

HaHa in the hotel room
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M4 | Date: 11-06-2019 18:38 | Resolution: 5472 x 3648 | ISO: 640 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/30s | Aperture: 1.8 | Focal Length: 8.8mm (~24.0mm)

A humble (or not so humble) hotel room may succeed in delivering a satisfactory service to the user, but it may also fail dramatically to do so. These failures suggest that the “designer” either hasn’t thought about the user at all, or has made some very odd choices. The results can be frustrating, amusing, even dangerous, sometimes all of the above.

How do the rooms you have stayed in succeed and fail?

In the following assessment, a perfect, unobtrusive hotel room would score zero. Points are deducted for annoyances, problems and perils.

All examples are real. I’m not making any of this up! Smile

Power Sockets and Connectivity

Let’s start with an easy one. Perfect zero is a couple of free power sockets just above or immediately adjacent to the desk. Wired networking is presented at the desk, WiFi works throughout the room.

  • Only power socket is located behind the bed. Deduct 2 points.
  • Only power socket is nowhere near desk/table and you have to leave your laptop and phones balanced precariously to charge. Deduct 2 points.
  • Only power socket is currently in use for only light. Deduct 5 points.
  • Only power socket is currently in use for light, fridge, TV and kettle via scary stack of adapters which almost certainly doesn’t meet even local fire regs. 10 points.
  • Sockets power down when you leave the room so you can’t leave anything charging or downloading. 5 points.
  • Sockets power down when you leave the room, but switch to keep them on accepts a standard ISO card like your gym membership. 3 points.
  • Hotel is unable or unwilling to find and return your gym membership card which you left in the room. 5 points.
  • One accessible power socket, to the right of the bathroom door, while the desk, the only place to rest laptop and things on charge, is to the left of the same doorway. Spend stay with a power cable stretched right across the bathroom doorway, limbo dancing under to use the facilities. 15 points.
  • The only place you can get simultaneous power and modem connectivity is above the hot tub in the middle of the room. 20 points. (Remember, I’m not making this up.)

Don’t get me started on WiFi…

Desk

  • Desk at standard height with matched or adjustable chair, large enough for laptop, mouse and a drink. Coffee station on another surface, hotel directory and other bumf away in a drawer. Nul points.
  • Desk of acceptable height, size and location but with a mirrored surface which causes your laptop to skid about and neither mechanical nor optical mice work properly. 2 points.
  • Desk too high / chair too low, so you have to type with your arms up around your shoulders reminiscent of the “short order cook” scene in Bless This House. Commonly achieved by having no dedicated desk chair, just an armchair. 5 points.
  • Desk too low, so you type like Rick Wakeman plays the keyboards. 5 points.
  • No desk at all. 5 points (no cheating!)
  • Desk exists, but full of crap (coffee station, hairdryer, hotel brochures are common offenders), some of it bolted down, so there’s no room for your stuff. 10 points (for adding insult to injury).
  • Desk hidden in an alcove under a ceiling so low you risk banging your head while you sit there. 10 points.

Shower taps

Add points for all which apply. You may score on several criteria!

  • Scary arrangement of multiple pipes and taps in different positions and of different styles, with no indication what does what. There is at least a small risk that one turns off the water supply to the whole hotel. 10 points.
  • Indicators engraved in tiny letters with zero contrast against the metal. 2 points.
  • Ambiguous engravings (e.g. does “C” stand for “Celsius”, “cold” or “calde/chaude”?). 2 points.
  • Perfectly smooth cylindrical or domed rotary knobs which are impossible to turn with soapy hands. 5 points.
  • Mount on the wall for the shower head either absent or broken. 5 points.
  • Mount for the shower head positioned so high that it both restricts the flow and ensures that what does come out floods the entire room. 5 points. Add another 5 if it’s the most expensive hotel of the trip.
  • Complex lever tap with about 5 degrees of freedom, so you can theoretically adjust temperature, flow and the use or multiple outlets by correctly twiddling it. 2 points.
  • Complex lever tap with about 5 degrees of freedom which turns on OK but doesn’t stop flow when returned to original position. 5 points.
  • No thermostatic control, and the hot and cold flow rates are so different it’s impossible to correctly adjust the temperature, and a micron of control movement can swing the water temperature from just above 0°C to around 60°C. 10 points.

I know in theory what perfect zero looks like. Two lever taps, one of which sets the flow, the other of which sets the temperature with thermostatic control and a stop at about 40°C. Flow control is indicated by clear icons (e.g. 0 to multiple drops), etched in a large font and a colour which clearly contrasts with the metal. Temperature is indicated by blue and red dots or arrows, or maybe temperatures in °C. The handset or head is sturdily mounted about 2m from the base.

I may know what perfect zero arrangement looks like, but I also know what a unicorn looks like. In neither case have I ever actually encountered one.

[Sod’s Law: about 10 minutes after writing this I had a shower in a room at the Ramada Cwrt Bleddyn, near Newport in Wales. Shower arrangement exactly as described! Yes Jemima, unicorns do exist! Don’t celebrate too much, the room scored well under several other headings…]

Bath Taps, Plugs and Associated Fittings

  • No bath plug. 3 points
  • Bath plug wrong size. 5 points (if you’re not going to bother, don’t pretend).
  • Bath plug loose and has to be held in place with foot. 3 points.
  • Plus is a spring-loaded popup positioned exactly under the buttock of an average height bath user. You shift your weight slightly and realise about 2 minutes later that the water has disappeared. 5 points.
  • Taps placed to scald toes (or head) as water added. 5 points.
  • Hourglass shaped bath which is wide enough for your shoulders but not for your hips. 10 points WTF.
  • Shower cubicle so narrow you can’t reach the lower half of your body once inside. 10 points.
  • Guest shelf in bathroom is above and behind toilet, difficult to reach and occasionally pitches your belongings down the pan. 10 points.
  • Soap “dish” in shower is a wire basket with holes so large your soap falls straight through unless very carefully aligned. 5 points
  • Soap dish has a convex surface, or slopes down towards the front, so soap simply slides off. 5 points.
  • Nowhere to hang wet clothing. 5 points. (Exemptions apply for hotels a long way from the sea with no pool, but beach/resort hotels really should get this right.)
  • No towel rail/hook. 4 points.
  • Towel rail has rusted sharp edge on rear surface, so you slash your hand removing the towel. 20 points.

Shaving/Make-up Light/Mirror

  • Large mirror directly behind sink or dressing table with built-in rim light. 0 points.
  • No mirror. 5 points.
  • Shaving mirror in pitch blackness. 5 points. (I only discovered it was there, after my ablutions, when the sun came up!)
  • Shaving mirror lit by small lamp directly above with result like the Bohemian Rhapsody video. 3 points.
  • Shaving mirror is the size of a postage stamp, so you can’t see the whole face in one go. 3 points.
  • Shaving mirror lit by a single small lamp from one side with result that your shave or make up for the day is different on the two sides of your face. 8 points.

Toilet position

  • Toilet too close to door. 3 points.
  • Toilet too close to wall, so you can’t sit straight. 5 points. Add 5 points if it’s squashed into the corner of a large bathroom getting on for the size of a tennis court.
  • Toilet adjacent to head of bed, separated only by a thin curtain. 5 points.
  • Toilet has spring-loaded seat which rises every time you adjust your weight. 5 points.
  • Toilet has spring loaded seat with the toilet roll holder just out of reach, and liquid soap on the floor so your feet are slipping. (Again, I’m not making this up although I will admit it was in the hotel’s communal area, not an individual room.) 20 points.

Lights

Permit me to dream for a minute. Perfect zero consists of a large, powerful central light or cluster which fills the room with light, plus a selection of subtle spotlights or uplighters at key points. You can choose any combination, but you can then turn them all off, or back on to the previous settings, with two master switches, by the bed and at the door. If the room is genuinely dark once the curtains/shutters are closed and the main lights are off, there’s some form of very low level night light which includes the bathroom area, but you again have control to turn it off if required. A man can dream, surely?

  • The only illumination appears to be a couple of captive glow-worms in opposite corners of the room. 5 points.
  • Lots of independent lights, each with separate switches. 3 points (at least you can work this arrangement out…)
  • Lots of switches, which control random subsets of the lights. None turns all the lights on or off. 5 points.
  • Room is so dark you can’t get to the bathroom during the night without turning everything back on again. 5 points.

Heating and Temperature Control

  • There’s an easily accessible control panel on which you set a temperature of your choice between say 16°C and 24°C. Once you’ve done that invisible systems quietly heat or cool the air and maintain your chosen temperature. Nul points, and count yourself very, very lucky.
  • No heating, or heating not working. Exemptions for hotels in the Tropics where ambient temperature always exceeds 20°C, otherwise 10 points.
  • No AC, or AC not working. Exemptions if the ambient temperature never exceeds 20°C, otherwise 10 points.
  • Heating sounds like a water tank being dragged slowly over rough cobbles. 10 points.
  • Heating sounds like Concorde warming up for take-off about 50m away (OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration…). 20 points.
  • Temperature control locked. 5 points. Add 2 points for every 1°C between your preferred temperature and the hotel’s dictat.
  • Temperature control has to be reset by standing on a chair and toggling a master switch above bathroom door. 3 points.
  • Heating is switched off centrally at the coldest point in the early hours of the morning. 10 points.
  • Heating goes off when you leave the room, so you have just got it warming up on a freezing night but by the time you get back from dinner it’s frozen again. 20 points.

TV Position and Inputs

  • TV is positioned so it cannot be viewed from the only chair. 10 points.
  • TV is positioned so it cannot be viewed from either chair or bed. 12 points.
  • TV has no modern inputs, so it’s impossible to connect laptop to view recorded/streamed programmes. 8 points.
  • TV has modern inputs, but it’s attached to the wall or built into the furniture so they are inaccessible. 10 points.
  • Arcane “hotel” software restricts channels and inputs but is hackable with a bit of googling and your own universal remote control. 5 points
  • Arcane “hotel” software is not hackable. 10 points, but at least I enjoy the challenge.
  • TV has a smaller screen than my laptop. 5 points.
  • TV is an ancient communist-era set with tiny square CRT, no inputs and apparently only able to receive broadcasts from the same era. (This was at the Berlin Holiday Inn in 2014. Maybe it was some weird DDR theme, but no one told me…). 10 points.

Curtains and Blinds

  • No curtains or blinds. 5 points.
  • Curtains don’t meet in the middle. 5 points. Add 5 points if room is directly opposite flashing green neon cross of an all night pharmacy.
  • Curtains don’t reach the edges of the window. 5 points.
  • Transparent curtains. 15 points WTF.
  • Porthole with no curtains carefully designed to admit the rising midsummer sun into your room at 3.30am. 20 points.
  • Curtains or blinds can be thrown wide open after a good night’s sleep, to reveal your naked self to Canadians having breakfast at a table directly outside your room. 5 points.

Tea/Coffee Station

  • No tea/coffee station. 5 points. That’s just mean.
  • Supplies inadequate, or they appear to have been part-used by previous occupant. 5 points. (I accept this is an operational rather than a design error, but depressingly frequent.)
  • Kettle doesn’t fit under cold water tap. 3 points.
  • Kettle lead doesn’t reach a power socket without balancing the boiling kettle on arm of chair. 10 points.
  • In the middle of the night there’s an odd scrabbling noise and you think you see the milk cartons moving across the desk of their own accord, but put it down as a hallucination due to your slightly drunken state. In the morning you find them at the other end, each punctured with a couple of tiny teeth marks and drained. 0 points, but it’s one of the oddest ways I have been deprived of an early morning cup of tea.

Furniture, Storage and Luggage Racks

  • Insufficient wardrobe space. 3 points
  • Hanging rail in wardrobe only about 2’ from the surface below, so impossible to hang clothes without wrinkling them. 3 points.
  • Bed and every surface covered in surplus cushions. 3 points.
  • You collect up surplus cushions to put them away, only to find that the wardrobe is already stuffed full of cushions, reminiscent of the Tribbles in Star Trek. 8 points.
  • No bedside cabinet. 3 points.
  • Bedside cabinet on only one side of double bed. 3 points
  • Bedside cabinet top so full of hotel c**p that you can’t put any of your own stuff on it. 5 points.
  • You move hotel c**p off bedside cabinet to make room for your own stuff, and the next time you stay they’ve bolted/wired the hotel c**p down. 8 points.
  • You use wire cutters to cut the wires and move the hotel c**p, and they finally get the message, but it means you always have to have wire cutters in your travel kit. 2 points.
  • No luggage racks or free space to lay down a suitcase. 5 points.
  • Only one luggage rack/space in a four-bed suite. 10 points. Really?
  • No room for a second suitcase but enough room for a two-person Jacuzzi. 3 points – at least this has its compensations.

Accessibility

  • Bed is such a tight fit to room that you are unable to access both sides of the bed without climbing over it. 5 points.
  • Have to limbo dance under a 3ft beam to access the bathroom (see picture below). 5 points.
  • Stairs down into bedroom directly from doorway. 10 points. Haha! (Look it up.)
  • Steep stairs down directly in middle of the bedroom, just off the line from bed to bathroom. 20 points.

Limbo dancing into the bathroom, boutique hotel in Kent
(Show Details)

Bedding and Pillows

  • Temperature in the middle of the night drops well below 10°C, but bedding is a couple of thin sheets or blankets. 5 points.
  • Temperature even in the middle of the night rarely drops below 20°C, but only bedding is a 50 Tog quilt designed for a Siberian Winter. 10 points.
  • Pillows are like marsh mallows, offering no support whatsoever. 5 points.
  • Pillows are like bricks. 5 points.
  • Pillows or bedding look suspiciously like they have not been washed since the last occupant, possible not prior to that either. 10 points.
  • Pillows have been bleached so thoroughly that you wake up in the middle of the night with a streaming nose and sore throat. 8 points.
  • Blanket is cut so small it doesn’t reach all corners of the bed. 5 points.
  • Duvet is so narrow it does not simultaneously cover both sides of you. 8 points

Levelness

I can’t believe this needs to be a heading!

  • Floor slopes down by 15° or more, with the result that you gradually slide down the bed and out of the bottom end. 20 points. (I’m not making this one up, either.)

Safety and Cleanliness

  • Bathroom floor is so sticky you have to use most of the towels as a set of stepping stones. 5 points.
  • Lift to top floor room works fine, but stairs are out of order (due to a 10 ft gap half way down.) 10 points.
  • Glass shower door detaches from hinges and falls into bath. 10 points.
  • Wardrobe top collapses inwards under weight of discarded pornography. 5 points, but at least it gave me something to read.

Sleep Prevention

There is one UK hotel chain which promises you a good night’s sleep, or your money back. While I don’t think the rest actually have the opposite intention, it’s sometimes easy to become suspicious.

  • Freight trains pass about 50m to the rear of the hotel every 15 minutes throughout the night, each sounding their horn several times. 20 points. (Hint: never stay at “The Old Station Hotel”, just in case the line is now a major high-speed trunk, and be very, very afraid if there’s a bowl of free earplugs at reception.)
  • Attractive chalet has a solid base and sides, but the roof is a weird double canvas affair. In any breath of wind over Beaufort Scale level 1 it whips, creaks, groans, snaps and pops vigorously. 15 points (Be very, very afraid if there are free earplugs in the soap dish.)
  • Tiny boats power past the hotel throughout the night, single-cylinder engines going full chat. 15 points.
  • Ice machine makes a noise like a road-mender’s pneumatic drill, at random points throughout the night. 10 points.
  • Double/triple glazing on 7th floor room proves insufficient to keep out noise of drunk Irishman in the street. 10 points.
  • Fire alarm goes off at about 4am, and Sod’s law it’s well below freezing with snow on the ground at the muster point. To add insult to injury there are two chaps still in suits each with a pint of beer in their hands. 10 points. Add 10 for each occurrence if this happens more than once at the same hotel…
  • Earthquake. In Warwickshire. OK, that wasn’t the hotel’s fault, but it was about a week after the last fire alarm… 10 points.

In Summary

Some of these are amusing, some very frustrating. Several are severe enough to lose the customers a night’s sleep, when that has to be the most basic provision from a hotel. A couple have forced us to abandon the hotel and go elsewhere, even though we’ve already paid. A few are operational rather than design errors, or genuinely beyond the hotelier’s control. But the others represent sheer failure to think hard enough about the poor old customer’s experience, either through plain ignorance, or where some notion of “style” has trumped the very necessary substance of such provision.

The necessity for good design applies in many spheres. And good design, a good user experience, is about making things work, not look pretty.

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Posted in Humour, Thoughts on the World, Travel | Leave a comment

That’s an Understatement!

"A bit of a wasps' nest"...
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 16-08-2020 18:13 | Resolution: 3328 x 3328 | ISO: 1600 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/25s | Aperture: 3.5 | Focal Length: 35.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

We thought there "might be a bit of a wasps’ nest" in the loft. At first glance, I thought it might be behind a bundle of insulation, but no, it is the "bundle of insulation". For scale, the electric valve is about 4"/10cm long.

I’m not getting any closer. This is one for The Professionals! (Cue Bodie and Doyle jumping over an Escort…)

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Blast from the Past

Sugar Minott, Ken Boothe, John Holt, Eric Donaldson, Pluto and Boris Gardner at the Original Barbados Vintage Reggae Concert 2003
Camera: Canon PowerShot S40 | Date: 23-03-2003 06:28 | Resolution: 2192 x 1370 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 4.9 | Focal Length: 21.3mm (~103.2mm)

With my friends Bob Kiss and John Birch both busy resurrecting old photographs with new software, I thought I would have a go. To give it a real challenge, I went back to my shots from the original 2003 Barbados Vintage Reggae Festival. These were taken indoors using a 4MP Canon S40, which had a maximum usable ISO of 400 (200 was a better bet), and because I didn’t know about such things back then, I captured only JPG, not RAW.

Boris Gardner at the Original Barbados Vintage Reggae Concert 2003 (Show Details)

However, Topaz Denoise AI has worked its magic, and I’m very pleased with these.

John Holt at the Original Barbados Vintage Reggae Concert 2003 (Show Details)

And yes, that is Sugar Minott, Ken Boothe, John Holt, Eric Donaldson, Pluto and Boris Gardner all onstage together at the end! The very best wishes to those still with us, and may those who have sadly departed this sphere rest happily, but hopefully not too quietly, in peace.

John Holt at the Original Barbados Vintage Reggae Concert 2003 (Show Details)
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What’s My Favourite Micro 4/3 Lens?

Burmese girl on Lake Inle
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 17-02-2017 16:47 | Resolution: 3124 x 3124 | ISO: 320 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 193.0mm | Location: Burmese girl on Lake Inle | State/Province: Ngapegyaung, Shan | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6

Over at The Online Photographer Mike Johnston posed a question about favourite Micro 4/3 lenses. The obvious answer is the 12-35mm f/2.8. I bought one several years ago largely off the back of Mike’s original review, it sits by default on my G9, and perhaps 90% of my photography by shot count uses it. As he said, it’s like having multiple high-quality primes in one small tube. By any practical definition, that’s my favourite.

I supplement it with the matching 35-100mm (same thing, just longer), the 100-300mm (capable of serious papp-ing, but also of some subtlety – see above, shot between two boats at 600mm-e),and sometimes the 7-14mm (although that gets very limited use given the 12-35mm is so good at 12mm). Together with the G9 that’s my “serious / obvious / heavy” kit. (Note that “heavy” is relative, the four zooms weigh a total of 1477g.)

However, maybe the 12-35mm is a lazy choice…

I also have a second kit, the “social / subtle / light” kit. This consists of the tiny Panasonic 14-42mm “pancake” power zoom, their 45-175mm, and the Olympus 9-18mm. Total weight 460g. These normally travel as spares with my old GX8, but get pressed into service when I need their remarkable physical characteristics. The 45-175mm is a real gem: only 90mm long (and no longer, it’s an internal zoom) and 210g, in adequate lighting it’s capable of shots just as sharp as the 35-100mm f/2.8. Its tiny size makes it unthreatening, its light weight makes it easy to hold the camera above your head (e.g. from the back of a crowd) and get sharp shots, even at maximum 350mm-e reach. However if you’re moving, it has another magic property: its size means that it can be held stable in the slipstream. Last year I was lucky enough to get a flight in a two-seat microlite, and here’s one of the shots I took from the back seat – try that with a 5D and EF100-400m lens!

Shot from the back of a two-seater microlite (Show Details)

Is the 45-175mm lens my favourite? I’m not quite sure, but how about it for a “left field” choice?

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Testing, Testing!

Leopard on the prowl!
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 16-11-2018 17:47 | Resolution: 5176 x 3235 | ISO: 320 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/250s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 100.0mm | Location: Okonjima | State/Province: Okonjati, Otjozondjupa | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

Apologies, I have a problem with my RSS feed which appears to require "live testing" to resolve. Please ignore this post, but if you’re already here please enjoy a nice picture of a beautiful leopard!

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From the Ministry of Strange Coincidences…

We’ve been getting through lockdown at least in part by working through Richard Coyle’s back catalogue. As well as things we hadn’t seen before, like the excellent Five Days of War, I tracked down a copy of The Whistleblowers from 2007. Today’s episode: "Pandemic", featuring the semi-accidental release of "The Corona-X Virus" by a suspect drug company. How do I pick these things?

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Demolition Man

Demolition Man

A great piece of futurology, remarkably prescient for this year

The other night we re-watched the highly entertaining Demolition Man, starring Sylvester Stallone, Sandra Bullock and Wesley Snipes (and let’s not forget Sir Nigel Hawthorne, who famously did it mainly to build enough of a Hollywood profile that they’d allow him to play the lead in The Madness of King George).

For a 27 year old film it stands up well: a sparkling, hilarious script based (very loosely) on Brave New World, strong if tongue in cheek performances by the leads, great action scenes. A few of the effects are a bit crude, but that’s not a major criticism. You do wonder if they toyed with the idea of doing it straight, but it works as an action comedy, while Huxley’s key themes about human nature and the dangers of excessive control still come through just as strongly.

However what made me want to write about it is how remarkably it stands up as a piece of futurology. This is a 1993 film set mainly in 2032. That date was deliberately a "long way in the future" but is now much closer to us than the film’s origin. In addition we’re currently undergoing an event, with the coronavirus, which is redefining many of our norms, and it’s fascinating how well some changes were predicted. In many ways, we’ve reached a point not far from what is portrayed.

Inevitably perhaps, the computers actually look a bit crude. I’ve always said that 25 years is the time it takes for the computers in any given Star Trek to look outdated: we’ve passed that age for this film, and it’s creators weren’t trying to predict the far future. They did get the level of voice control about right for where we are now, and, writing when we were slowly adopting Windows 3 and the web had a handful of sites, they correctly predicted the connected information world we take for granted. They missed out on the concept of mobile devices, and thankfully we don’t have devices handing out fines for profanity whenever we swear, although it might be fun and fairly straightforward to program Alexa to do so.

The film correctly predicts the demise of cash in favour of computerised money and contactless payments, and the ability to track the movements of individuals, but without portable/wearable computers these capabilities are provided by small embedded chips. We haven’t quite reached that level of integration, but mainly for moral rather than technical reasons: we have all the components. In a world where our phones will now continually log and trace our physical contacts to fight Covid-19, we’re scarily close.

Two other regular activities are contactless in the film: personal greetings and sex. The former is now rapidly becoming so in real life, again accelerated by the coronavirus, and the Demolition Man circular wave is a good option. The latter is not yet, but the artificial insemination process described for procreation is a pretty accurate reality for special cases.

The governor’s council meets by teleconference, albeit with large physical avatars in place of chairs in the council room. With the British government currently operating largely via Zoom, that’s spot on.

With one delightful exception the cars are all electric and self-driving but with a manual option. That’s well on the way, predicted for the middle of this decade. The cop cars have the ability to re-inflate tyres after taking a bullet, but instead we have an equivalent run flat capability and the ability to fill a punctured tyre with foam instead of changing a wheel. Tick. However the "secure foam" which fills the whole car after a major accident looks a bit final, and not an obvious improvement on airbags.

We see a small vehicle, possibly autonomous, being prepared to make a delivery from the restaurant. Online shopping and home delivery for both groceries and cooked food were already a major feature of many societies, but they have become the backbone of many lockdowns, with suppliers desperately seeking efficiencies. In Britain we now have drone deliveries of medical supplies and autonomous home deliveries will surely arrive.

Even some things meant as a joke are closer than the writers imagined. Radio stations or restaurant pianists dedicated to old commercial jingles are laughable, but we live in a world where Ridley Scott’s advert for Hovis (a type of bread in 1970s Britain) has nearly 1M views on YouTube, has a Wikipedia page and is still regularly satirised nearly 50 years on. Other British favourites like the Tetley Tea Folk, the PG Tips chimps and the Smash robots also get regular replays, and I’m sure non-British readers can find their own equivalents.

Another joke more nearly came true than the writers could ever have expected. Stallone makes great fun of a mention of the Schwarzenegger Presidential Library, but we know that Arnie did serve eight fairly successful years as Governor of California, and there was an (unsuccessful) attempt to change the rules to allow him a presidential run.

One thing which has changed less than predicted is language. A lot of fun is made of Bullock persistently misusing 90s expressions such as "shove it" and "blow him away", but they still work for me, and I suspect most will survive the remaining 12 years.

Several years after seeing the film I attended a seminar on electronic document management, at which one lecturer used the memorable phrase "a paperless office is as likely as a paperless toilet". He was wrong. Many offices were already on the way to being largely paperless even before the pandemic, and the increase in home working has only accelerated that. While we haven’t yet adopted the paperless toilet in the West, I have used one designed for Asian visitors which offered functions not unlike the three seashells of the film, with an even scarier control panel. The only paper we see in the film is the annoying receipts for the profanity fines. Like with our paper receipts for contactless payments these are largely just a nuisance, until Stallone finds a use for them to resolve his confusion with the toilet.

Why are the predictions so accurate? One driver is the timescale: trying to portray a period a few decades in the future means you can assume a lot of technical advance, but not enough to make the technology look like magic (i.e. not invoking Clarke’s Third Law). The writers obviously thought about feasible projections from 1990s technology, and avoided anything which would breach known physical capabilities – there are no hoverboards, because we don’t yet have the physics to create them, but it was a reasonable bet that computers should get complex enough to drive a car, with human backup. In his book The Road Ahead, written in 1996, Bill Gates states that we consistently overestimate what we can develop in 2 years, and consistently underestimate what we can achieve in 10, largely because we just aren’t very good at understanding compound or exponential change. Demolition Man benefits from this: it probably underestimates the reality of 39 years on from its release, but at the 27 year mark the technology looks like a good mixture of the established and the feasible.

However there are also warnings, particularly relevant at the current time. Perhaps Demolition Man‘s greatest prediction, albeit not yet realised, regards the state of society.

As in Huxley’s original book, in Demolition Man humanity has survived a disaster and built a safer, more ordered society, but at the cost of many of the personal freedoms which make us truly human and drive our advance. Anything enjoyable but even vaguely bad for you, from alcohol to red meat, is banned. Those unwilling to accept the restraints live in poverty, invisible in the margins.There is no violent crime and no firearms apart from a few in a museum. Life is tranquil, but eviscerated, and completely unprepared for individuals, good and bad, who operate outside accepted norms.

While that doesn’t yet describe the society of 2020, there is a risk that in response to the pandemic we trade away hard-won freedoms, and true democracy, already under threat from anti-democratic forces, is eroded past a point of no easy return.

It’s a good time to watch this film. Laugh at the jokes. Enjoy the action. Marvel at the technical predictions. But take away a salutary reminder that we need to protect freedom and democracy not only from stupid populists, but also from those who quietly say "it’s safer, and for your own good".

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Hungry Birds!

Blue tit babies
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 21-05-2020 11:08 | Resolution: 2094 x 2094 | ISO: 2000 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 193.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

Enormous excitement chez nous. We have a bird box, installed in the courtyard many years ago, which has been systematically ignored most years. But not this year. A couple of weeks ago we realised that a couple of blue tits were frequenting it, dragging bits and pieces of nest material back and forth, and in the last week activity had ramped up dramatically but we weren’t quite sure to what what stage.

Then yesterday while Frances was planting she heard some very enthusiastic tweeting, and caught sight of a couple of tiny yellow beaks. Mum and Dad are now running relays about 14 hours a day to shovel food into those tiny beaks. It’s quite interesting to watch the patterns. One, let’s assume it’s Dad, has obviously found a good source of grubs at the other end of the garden and does straight runs right through the Chinese circle, only slowing slightly before dumping said grub into a waiting beak. He was on about a 2 minute cycle yesterday afternoon.

Feeding time – all the time! (Show Details)

The other, let’s assume it’s Mum, is more cautious, and tends to land on a nearby branch or two first before approaching the box more slowly. Sometimes they arrive together and it’s amusing to watch one bouncing up and down waiting for the other to finish his/her delivery.

That looks tasty… (Show Details)

It was never a deliberate plan, but we have four windows with a view of the box, and they don’t seem to mind us standing watching or photographing as long as we’re behind glass. It’s a bit of a challenge photographically as they all move so quickly, and I haven’t yet got the perfect shot of a grub being deposited into a waiting yellow beak, but these aren’t bad. Enjoy!

That cobweb covered in pollen looks good, if I can just reach it… (Show Details)
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Channel Hopping Mad!

DAB Anger
Resolution: 952 x 628

Why are digital radio and TV such exemplars of a bad user experience?

In the good old days of a small number of analogue broadcast channels, watching TV or listening to the radio was a rewardingly simple process. To watch, listen or record you simply selected a channel, and you had a high expectation that the expected content would be there. The move to digital broadcast radio and television (DAB and DVB) should have increased technical quality and choice while maintaining this ease of use. Instead we have been saddled with an arcane, failure-prone process which offers a dreadful user experience, leaving many users frustrated and angry. It didn’t have to be so, and one wonders what technocratic or bureaucratic nonsense managed to create the mess we have.

I seem to spend a lot of time watching the less technically-minded people in my life struggling with this shocking state of affairs, or apologising to them for it. I myself am technically able, and I can usually get a required result but it often takes a lot more time and effort than it should. Neither is acceptable.

The basic mental model for most users is the following:

Unfortunately in common parlance the terms “channel”, “station”, and “programme” (or program, for our American friends) get used somewhat interchangeably, so I’m going to use the following definitions:

  • A “station” is an enduring stream of content from a given broadcaster. BBC1 would be a well-known British example (and hopefully all readers can think of an equivalent).
  • A “channel” is an item in the list of content streams which the device can receive. For example Channel 1 might be receiving BBC1.
  • A “programme” is an item of content, with the term “recurring programme” referring to both series and regular/daily programming.
  • A “preset” is a mechanism to quickly route back to a favourite channel or station.

After a process of “tuning” the device will have a way to present the list of channels and their related stations to the user. As there will be more than a few channels (~200 on my TV) there will be some way to scroll through the list, and a way to assign favourites to a preset. The user can call up a given channel either using its number in the list, or the preset.

A TV will also have a way of reviewing the current and future programmes by channel (the “TV Guide”), and maybe searching for a programme by name. Radios don’t tend to have this.

And we’re already in trouble. People don’t deal well with long lists, so finding what you’re interested in may be tricky. In the UK, they put the original five stations on channels 1-5, fair enough, but the HD versions which you really want are hidden lower down. On our older DAB radios you scroll through the channels one at a time and they are not in alphabetic order, so it becomes a memory test to work out when you’ve reviewed everything. If the station you want is not there it may be because it’s unavailable, it may have changed its name, or you may just have missed it. Conversely there may be duplicate or near-duplicate station names for a range of reasons including technical issues and content variations, but you’ll have to resort to trial and error to find out which one you want.

It wouldn’t be so bad if this was static, but it isn’t. There’s a constant churn:

  • New stations start broadcasting, and existing ones stop, or pause.
  • Station names change. Sometimes this is a minor change, but it can be significant if the broadcaster does a major branding change, the station changes ownership, or a franchise is re-assigned. It’s also possible for the name to remain the same but the content changes, although that’s not something which can be blamed on the DAB/DVB design.
  • Station variants change, or a given channel changes its content variant.
  • Station allocations to channels get changed
  • The technical details for a station’s signal get changed. (It’s more complicated than just a frequency, but “frequency” will do as a shorthand.)

When a station’s channel allocation or “frequency” change, then your TV or radio may no longer be able to find it. A planned recording will fail. One of the most common, and annoying ways, of detecting a change is via a failed recording of a favourite programme. Alternatively you switch on your radio or TV and the previous tuned-in station, or your presets, are either "dead air" or some completely unrecognised random content.

There’s no reliable way of finding out in advance when you need to re-tune, short of a séance or reading the tea-leaves. After the event some devices may detect a changed channel list and invite you to re-tune, but such reminders rarely tell you what’s actually happened, and they come so frequently (more than once a week in our locale) that you tend to ignore them until you find something “wrong”.

If the designers of the DAB/DVB system (as least as implemented in the UK) had thought about the user experience, or had even the slightest knowledge of integration interface design, then it wouldn’t have to be this way. For example, whether you’re consuming an API or filling in official forms the usual practice when an "interface" changes is to allow the old one to continue but "deprecated" for a short period of time while people switch to the new one. Not in the DAB/DVB world – the service gets removed from where it was on the day it moves to the new location, and you have to re-tune. During the UK’s big "digital switch over" event I had to re-tune every device in my house on a specific day, three times.

Let’s put some more technical detail behind the average user’s mental model of this system:

That may be slightly tongue in cheek, but only slightly…

So let’s think about how it might work better. Here are some principles:

  • A digital TV is a computer.
  • A digital radio is a computer.
  • Computers are good at doing technical stuff, humans aren’t. The technical stuff should be invisible to the user.
  • Long undifferentiated lists are bad. Long lists with no obvious structure or order are worse. Lists of 7±2 things are good.

The primary concept for using a TV or radio is the station. I want BBC1. Here are some things I don’t want to be bothered with:

  • Hunting through hundreds of other stations
  • Which channel or channels BBC1 is assigned to, and any changes
  • Which frequencies the channels are assigned to, and any changes
  • Technical variants of a station. I should automatically get the best available version.
  • Content variants of a station, unless I manually select one in which case that becomes my selection.

Taking these together, a simpler model emerges. First the channel list needs to become a station list – channels are a meaningless technical detail. It also shouldn’t actually be a list – that’s a very crude solution for 200+ items. The obvious solution is some sort of tree or accordion structure, so that first you choose from a short list of broad groups ("General entertainment", "News", "Movies", "Kids", "Shopping", "Adult", "Radio" etc.), then maybe from a second level, then from a shorter list. Obviously a good user interface would remember where you were last… As the objective is to make things easier for the user, there’s no reason why a station might not show up in more than one place if that’s appropriate, and on a graphical display there should be a search option.

The list shouldn’t by default show station variants, although there might be an option to drill down to those if a user really wants it. Once I’m watching a given station it should automatically show the best available technical variant (e.g. HD TV), switching automatically but temporarily to a lesser variant if required, and switching back as soon as possible. This would prevent the abomination of the BBC "red screen of death" advising you that it cannot show local content on BBC1HD and you need to manually switch to SD.

If a station has content variations (e.g. for local news) the receiver should default automatically to the most popular variant, but I should be able to manually select an alternative. Again, if my selected variant is not available then the receiver should automatically show an alternate, but only until the preferred selection is available.

This then admits a much simpler mental model, which actually addresses the needs of the user, not some arcane technical complexities:

Tuning should simply not be visible to the user in any form. If there have been technical changes which do not affect the station I am currently watching or listening to, these should be automatically dealt with in the background. I should only be told if there’s a problem which will stop me accessing a preset or favourite station.

If changes affect my current station, then in an ideal world they would be communicated to the receiver in advance, and the receiver would automatically apply them at the right time, or, even better, the old technical details would continue to work for a crossover period to allow receivers to catch up seamlessly. In a less than ideal world if the receiver is switched on and technical details have changed for the selected station then the first thing it does is retune that station, and then process other changes in the background.

If the station name has changed, but the content hasn’t, the receiver should just handle this transparently. Obviously that means that behind the scenes there needs to be some form of persistent station ID independent of visible name, but that’s something that we deal with all the time in the IT world, it’s really not rocket science.

The only circumstance in which switching on the receiver should result in dead air or a random station is if the preferred station has permanently ceased broadcasting. Nothing else.

It’s not difficult to think of a model which would actually make digital TV and radio usable, and it’s inexplicable why broadcasters and manufacturers have made such an appalling job of it so far.

In the meantime, our DAB radio sits tuned to FM, and our TVs are all tuned perpetually to channel 231 (or is it 130?) for BBC News, except on the HD ones where it’s 107, until the next change… Oh well.

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Raising the Bar…

Obelixia - primary resident of Elizabeth Bay - my shot
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 25-11-2018 11:48 | Resolution: 5159 x 3224 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/200s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 286.0mm | Location: Elizabeth Bay | State/Province: Elizabeth Bay, Karas | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

Assuming that we all get back to travelling, it looks like I have seriously raised the bar on my own travel photography. Not only did we get to shoot at one of the same locations as Seven Worlds, One Planet, but it looks like I got to photograph the same individual! (Spot the distinctive pattern of bites on her ears.)

From Seven Worlds, One Planet (Show Details)
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A Ray of Sunshine

A ray of sunshine
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 01-05-2020 19:40 | Resolution: 4979 x 3734 | ISO: 640 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 30.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

For about ten minutes at the end of each evening the sunlight lights up our newest sculpture through the Chinese circle. I thought it would be nice to share this:

  • it’s a pretty image in it’s own right,
  • I’d like to celebrate the fact that after several weeks I’ve finally just about finished reworking, updating and rehosting my website,
  • … and this is a good test of my blogging software!

PS – it turned out to be a better test than I expected. Half an hour later I’ve learned how to use SSL with the .Net web client! Working now!

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Small is Beautiful

Miniature sarcophagus from the Tutankhamun exhibition
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M4 | Date: 30-12-2019 12:54 | Resolution: 2832 x 4248 | ISO: 2000 | Exp. bias: -0.7 EV | Exp. Time: 1/80s | Aperture: 4.0 | Focal Length: 25.7mm (~70.0mm)

Here are a couple more of my shots from the Tutankhamun exhibition. The sarcophagus is a particular delight, as the full-sized items did not travel from Egypt, but this 6″ version did. In real life it’s tiny – if you look carefully you can see a pin to the left of the belt – that’s a normal mounting pin, not a bolt! So I have a picture of the sarcophagus, almost as if we’d seen the real thing.

I’m very pleased with this image. It was taken at f/4 and ISO 2000, through glass but from only about a foot away. Depth of field was a significant challenge, but I cheated slightly by putting the result through Topaz Sharpen AI in focus mode. The result is sharp in most areas, although the top of the headgear and tip of the beard are still slightly out. Noise wasn’t really a problem, although Topaz did clean it up slightly.

However this is mainly a testament to the Sony RX100, rather than post-processing. It may be the size of a packet of cigarettes, but it’s capable of images just as good as an interchangeable-lens camera ten times its size and weight. It’s not a “point and shoot” compact camera, it’s a big camera made small. However small doesn’t mean cheap, even this five year old variant costs over £500 if you find someone who still has new stock. The latest variant costs almost as much as a top-end Micro Four Thirds camera or mid-range DSLR.

Necklace featuring Akenaten, from the Tutankhamun exhibition (Show Details)

But that’s absolutely right. Making tiny things which are just as good as the full-sized versions is hard, takes a lot of work, and demands arguably even more skill. I would hope the Pharaoh’s advisors accepted that when they commissioned a jeweller and a miniature artist to make these items. It’s equally true today.

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