Category Archives: Humour

It’s Screen Time!

Too much screen time?
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Is this what they mean by “too much screen time”?

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No Middle Way

No Middle Way...
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A study in UX atrocity – the Mercedes Benz COMAND SatNav

I drive a 2011 Mercedes. Like many of its brethren, most of the vehicle is a demonstration of engineering excellence: smooth, efficient, safe and smart (in both senses of the word). Its controls are clear, precise and beautifully weighted. The intelligent brake and start/stop systems are almost telepathic once you get used to them.

But there’s a fly in the ointment – the appalling COMAND SatNav system. It does have a comprehensive UK address database, and will get you close to where you want to go, but that’s about the best which can be said for it. The user experience is atrocious, to the point where one wonders if it was considered at all.

The problems start with the routing algorithms. If it can, the car will recommend a route using motorway-class roads to the maximum extent. That’s fine, but it will then pursue that strategy to ridiculous extremes. Get off the motorway a junction early, and the system will determinedly try to re-route you back on, even if there’s a direct main road from your current location to the destination, and rejoining the motorway would add many miles.

However that pales in comparison with what happens if you either select a non-motorway route, or despite its best efforts the car really cannot find one. Plan B is to impose strict optimisation for distance. This ignores quality and size of road, the number of junctions and all similar considerations. There may be a direct route on a fast dual carriageway main road, but if the Domesday book mentions a cart track which saves a few metres the car will try and take you down it instead.

On one occasion this led me off Dartmoor on a dark November evening down a road with a 100m stretch narrower than my garage, with high granite walls on both sides, both front-end proximity sensors sounding continuously. Recently we had to get from the A4 to the A36, both substantial main roads which link together on the edge of Bath. The SatNav found an alternative – using single track roads and an ancient toll bridge for which we had to hand over £1 in cash!

None of this would matter if there was some way to set your optimisation preferences. Well the COMAND system does, sort of. It actually provides four routing options:

  • Dynamic route. The default, described above
  • Fastest route. This is the motorways-only model on steroids. It will happily take you 20 miles out of your way to use one. Plus it doesn’t take any notice of traffic warnings!
  • Shortest route. I shudder to think what this involves, but levitation and off-roading are safe bets.
  • Eco route. There’s not much guidance on what this entails, but since the most economical route is either the most direct or the one on which you can maintain a good speed unimpeded, I suspect it’s going to be similar to the default.

There are also a few "Avoid" checkboxes which you can add to the calculation. "Avoid tolls" might be useful (but see below), most of the others don’t apply in the UK or near continent. I’m not even sure what a "vignette obligation" is – do I have to stop to take a photograph with dark corners at regular intervals?

The options really don’t help much. Instead of aggressive optimisation for distance why not road size/quality (which you can easily estimate in the UK from the letter in the road number) or the expected speed based on speed limits?

To add insult to injury COMAND does recognise some restrictions, but at random. When travelling from England to Wales it always asks about trying to avoid the Severn tolls, no longer in operation, which would mean a 50 mile detour off the very direct motorway route, but it didn’t ask in advance about the active toll in Bath. After yet another cart track, when we programmed in our route back to hotel it had the bloody cheek to ask "your destination is in an area with restricted access do you wish to continue?" The only challenge turned out to be the hotel gate which is a good 2.5m wide, a clearance of at least 30cm either side of my Mercedes, neither proximity detector triggered. My wife has started to anthropomorphise the system as actively mischievous.

Other UX issues are equally frustrating. You can only turn off voice guidance by a long press on the mute button while it’s actually speaking. Once off there is no way to turn it back on without cancelling and re-programming the destination. Surely it ought to be possible to provide a menu option to just turn the voice on and off?

At least the navigation function’s voice is a pleasant female with a clear British accent, who can correctly pronounce most English place names and will have a decent stab at Welsh ones. When speaking she gently fades the music and restores it afterwards.

She shares the box with the traffic warning "lady". I assume this second voice is also meant to be female, but it sounds like Stephen Hawking having a fight with a Dalek. She abruptly buts in, just silencing the music, and her attempts to pronounce UK place names are scary. Reigate (pronounced Rye-Gate) comes out as "Ree-a-gaa-ter", anything more complicated is unrecognisable. The best is probably the motorway between London and Southampton, the M3, which is renamed the "cubic meters"!

As a software architect I find it shocking that a closely related pair of systems, which do collaborate to adjust routes around traffic problems, ended up with two separate text to speech systems, a good one and an appalling one. How on earth did this mess get through the first stage of Mercedes QA? As a user all I can do is wince and try not to be distracted from the road trying to understand the encrypted names of traffic locations.

[That said, this is a schizophrenic car in other ways. It can be a saloon or a roadster. It can burble along with the best of luxury limos, but push the Sport button and it releases a snarling monster which has to be actively restrained. Perhaps the dual personalities of Saint Teresa of the Sat Nav and Mad Traffic Tracy are just a further expression. It would have been the ideal car for Dr. Edward Jekyll.]

Two things are apparent. The "designers" of this system (using the politest term possible) either didn’t think about usability, or didn’t care. They then either refused to get independent testing and review, or actively ignored its results. One can only hope the same has not happened with a more critical but less visible system.

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Disasters and Dystopias: Where Are We Now?

Disasters and Dystopias
Resolution: 749 x 711

There’s a darkly humorous meme doing the rounds:

Dystopian Films

It makes you chuckle, but it’s wrong. Firstly, I’m not sure even the most disheartened would actually claim to be living the events of The Matrix. Of course, there’s always the possibility that the machines have plugged us all into an artificial reality in order to harvest us as batteries, but [a] I’m not sure that’s the most efficient way of powering themselves and [b] don’t you think they would have chosen a more cheerful script to keep the batteries happy? However more importantly, there are some very real aspects of our current situation which have been foreseen on film, and they’re missing from the list. The list above are all great books or films, but they are a bit out of date. We need a new version.

So what version of the picture actually reflects where we are now? Which disaster and dystopian movies and TV shows have portrayed or predicted key elements of our current predicament?

Contagion. Tick, tick, tick. Zoonotic pandemic starts with bats interacting with food animals in China, and spreads quickly through international travel. Tick. R0 is about 3. Tick. Significant sectors of the world economy shut down. Tick.  Healthcare systems struggle to cope, but the professionals keep going till they drop. Tick. Part way through new variants arise which are even more transmissible. Tick! Well-known figures publicise quack “cures” and sow discord, but meanwhile hard-working scientists develop a real vaccine. Tick. OK, it’s a flu not a coronavirus, it’s more lethal, it affects all demographics roughly equally, and the US is portrayed as a willing participant in the WHO, but otherwise it’s scarily accurate. Also, by and large America hasn’t yet suffered societal breakdown as a result of Covid, but the article is yet young…

On a more positive note since this isn’t the Zombie apocalypse, and we haven’t (yet) taken to bombing infected towns, Outbreak and World War Z are off the list.

While we’re thinking about heath care provision, there is a great action/conspiracy film about health care inequality: Elysium. We haven’t quite got to the stage where the rich have to fly their Bugatti air-cars up to an orbiting hospital to get the care their money deserves, but many of the trends are recognisable. Tick.

We are of course living through, and causing, another albeit slow-moving disaster: climate change and the Anthropocene mass extinction. You’d think that this would be a rich seam for film-makers to mine, but so far that hasn’t really been the case, although there are a few candidates. Medicine Man brilliantly portrays the wanton destruction of the Amazon and its biodiversity, and the effective war on its indigenous people. There’s the added poignancy that we know John McTiernan and the producers wanted to film it where he’d shot Predator, 5 years earlier, but that patch of rainforest had already been cleared. Tick. The Day After Tomorrow captures the causes and the political inertia we’re seeing, but so far it looks like the outcome will be more like the hot, dry world of Mad Max. There were a couple of decent TV Movies in the early noughties about climate-change driven extreme storms (Category 6: Day of Destruction and the rather more bonkers Category 7: The End of the World), but where are the films about massive forest fires, habitat loss, desertification and rising sea levels?

One related theme which has been well served is the risks around toxic waste, and the extreme corruption related to it. In my DVD collection there’s Fire Down Below, Sahara and Transporter 3, and that’s just scratching the surface. Even in The Dukes of Hazzard Boss Hogg’s skulduggery is in aid of a plot to strip-mine the titular county! I’ll take Fire Down Below as representative of the genre.

Set aside such wanton callous indifference, and deliberate acts of villany or terrorism, many real and fictional disasters are caused by bosses ignoring warning signs in favour of political or commercial expediency. In the “true life disaster” genre we have real examples such as Chernobyl and Deepwater Horizon. These are all brilliant, but if we’re sticking to fictional portrayals of current or near future risks they are probably excluded. While we haven’t yet got to the point where people are being eaten by theme park dinosaurs, Jurassic Park has this as a major theme, as does Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The latter also includes a major pandemic and the consequences of our mistreatment of other sentient species, so it gets a tick.

Thinking about theme parks, we can probably ignore Westworld for now, but Skyfire gets an honourable mention as we have, sadly, seen tourists killed while visiting an active volcano which erupted at just the wrong time. However I’ve excluded such as The Wave and Supervolcano which portray natural disasters which “will happen, we just don’t know when”, based on known science, but are not high on our current worry list.

Turning to the human condition, which is really the focus of the diagram above, which films most accurately capture current threats and trends? The new series based on Brave New World doesn’t really, although the concept of tourism to view poor people does ring a little true. However the previous film version of the story, Demolition Man is spot-on to a number of aspects of modern society, and a remarkable piece of futurology (detailed review here). Tick.

Minority Report scores on a several points. The police are using a AI and data mining (albeit with a group of prescient individuals) to try to predict and prevent crimes. People are tracked, surveilled and recognised wherever they go and then subject to a barrage of tailored advertising. We don’t yet have ubiquitous holograms, but otherwise many of the interactions look familiar. Tick. Surrogates accurately captures what may happen to humankind if we forgo direct physical interaction in place of the virtual, even if we don’t yet have the physical avatars it portrays. Tick.

AI is becoming a threat in its own right. Hopefully we’re still some way off the worlds of Terminator and Robocop, but we are developing killing machines with increasing remote and autonomous capabilities. We also run the risk of our own data being used against us. Let’s include Terminator Genisys, which covers both themes, and Eye in the Sky which deals with the moral and legal issues. After that you may be ready for some light relief: my favourite depiction of rampant AI, in a world not very far from our own, is the hilarious X-Files episode Rm9sbG93ZXJz. The challenges of being an analogue player in a digital world are the central theme of Johnny English Strikes Again, or the alternative version, Skyfall.

I’m not aware of a mainstream film dealing with the “post truth” world in which objective reporting is subservient to self-selected news sources supporting the rise of conspiracies and the extreme right, but it was handled well in the penultimate series of Homeland. Homeland also deals with other major concerns, including Islamic terrorism and the uncomfortable global interactions around it, and what happens when the upper layers of government cannot be trusted. Tick, even if it stops short of a right-wing mob storming the Capitol in an attempted putsch. Perhaps there is still a place for 1984 or Farenheit 451 in our list.

Let’s talk about the end of Trump, shall we? Personally I’d love to see El Presidente being hit by a meteorite or devoured by a velociraptor, but we don’t always get what we want. However there is a film which portrays the last days of an unstable tyrant unable to accept defeat, and blaming everyone but himself. Downfall. Tick. The US version of House of Cards depicted a US president wilfully corrupting the electoral system to cling to power, but eventually having to give way. It’s not quite right, as President Underwood is much cleverer, a skilful operator rather than a populist narcissist, and actually wants to do some good with his power, but it’s close enough. Tick.

So here’s my assessment of how our current state relates to all these disasters and dystopias:


Disasters and Dystopias

Is there any good news? Well at least we haven’t included Armageddon,Independence Day or Supernova. We can control or prevent all the ills above, although whether we have the will to do so is debateable, and time’s running out on climate change and deforestation, to the point where things may already be destined to get much worse before they get better.

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Design Lessons: Hotel Rooms

HaHa in the hotel room
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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.
  • You have to stand in sewage while conducting your own emergency repair on the toilet. 5 points, add another 5 for every star claimed by the hotel (30 points possible and observed in practice).
  • 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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Shit Hit Fan!

190917 RX100m4 01071
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M4 | Date: 17-09-2019 16:44 | Resolution: 4650 x 3100 | ISO: 500 | Exp. bias: -0.7 EV | Exp. Time: 1/80s | Aperture: 3.5 | Focal Length: 25.7mm (~70.0mm)

Something in the note on my desk this morning hinted that my day was not going to go quite as planned… 🙂

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The Jester and The Unicorn

A purple unicorn

A fable, sort of…

The jester who wanted to be king asked the crowd “Do you want a purple unicorn?”

Almost half the crowd said “We are happy as we are, and we don’t believe unicorns exist”, but slightly more than half said “Yes please, we’d love one.”

The king wanted his people to be happy, so the king’s men spent three years looking for a purple unicorn. They spent much of the kingdom’s treasure, and annoyed many of the kingdom’s friends, constantly asking for unicorns which they did not have, because unicorns don’t exist. Other realms laughed at the king and his kingdom, and important matters in the kingdom went without attention.

Eventually the king’s men came back and said “There are no unicorns. We’ve found a nice horse we can paint purple and glue a fake horn on its nose, will that do?”

All those who had never believed in unicorns said “told you so”. Many of the others said “OK, we agree”. But others were angry, blaming those who had never believed in unicorns. Some were so obsessed with the idea of a unicorn that they wanted to shoot all the horses, just so they would not get a horse painted purple with a fake horn glued to its nose.

A wise king could simply have stopped the search, saying “unicorns do not exist”. A wise king could have told the crowd “You may vote again. But just to be clear, unicorns do not exist, so you are voting for a horse painted purple with a fake horn glued to its nose.” But the foolish king thought that the only important thing was not upsetting those who wanted a unicorn, so the search continues…

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Normal Service Will Be Resumed After Completion Of This Rant

Sleepy Cheetah!
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 16-11-2018 17:29 | Resolution: 3345 x 3345 | ISO: 800 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 193.0mm | Location: Okonjima | State/Province: Okonjati, Otjozondjupa | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

The last day of any trip is always a bit sad, and hard work with the travel. However this year three separate organisations covered themselves in something which is not glory, and I have to get this out of my system before I write the traditional tail piece for my blog…

As a bit of compensation, here’s a nice picture of a cheetah, feeling about like I did at 1am on Friday.

Thanks.

Rant 1: Designing Hotel Bedrooms

The recurring dysfunctional ingenuity of hotel designers never ceases to amaze me, and provides an endless supply of material for this blog. On our way back through Windhoek, we stayed at Galton House, which while still quite smart overall and in the communal areas, was probably half a notch down from the Pension Thule, where we stayed outbound. My room was a bit poky and had a couple of major challenges, including very noisy air conditioning, and an Iceland-class duvet (in Windhoek, in the summer!). However the worst fail was that it had one accessible power socket, to the right of the bathroom door, while the desk, the only place I could rest laptop and things on charge, was to the left of the same doorway. I therefore had to spend my stay with a power cable stretched right across the bathroom doorway, limbo dancing under it when I needed to use the facilities.

One wonders what sort of hotel designer comes up with a room with a desk, and no power socket on the appropriate side of the room. That’s up to the standard of the Calais hotel I once stayed in where the lift worked but the stairs were out of order (due to a 10 ft gap half way down.) Admittedly about 20 years ago I did stay in a hotel in England where the only place you could get simultaneous power and modem connectivity was in the hot tub in the middle of the room, but that was an adapted medieval abbey, and plain weird. Galton House is a smart new purpose-built venue. Not a clue…

And to add actual injury to potential injury, most of us had got the whole way around Namibia without many bites, and several of us, including myself, woke up covered in nasty little red marks. Blast.

Rant 2: Midnight Food Service

I’m fully in favour of Virgin holding onto the "full service airline" concept when BA and others have abandoned it. However, if you are running a night flight which leaves Johannesburg at 21.00 local time, and arrives in London at 06.00 local time, I would suggest that your highest priority is to try and enable your passengers to get as much of a decent night’s sleep as airline seating and turbulence allow. This is not promoted by serving, slowly, drinks, followed by a rubbish collection, followed by tepid towels (they were probably hot when they left the galley, but I was at the front of Economy), followed by a rubbish collection, followed by "supper", at about 00.30, followed by hot drinks, and finally followed by another rubbish collection at gone 1 in the morning!

…Followed by inedible breakfast, at about 05.00…

Would it really not be better to just give everyone some booze and turn the lights off?

Rant 3: The 787 Nightmare Liner

I wasn’t impressed by the 787 on the flight out, but my assessment reduced a further notch on the way back. That plane revealed a number of areas where the new technology has aged very badly. One example: the window dimming switch on my window had obviously been jabbed so frequently and hard that  the rubber cover had completely failed and peeled away. Worse, the toilet is supposed to retain the seat upright via some magnetic mechanism, with a nearby "non contact" switch operating the flush. In the loo nearest my seat the seat retainer had completely failed, meaning that I had to sit holding the seat upright with one hand, and every time I moved, the flush mechanism triggered randomly.

This was all on a "nearly new" plane which has by definition only been in service for a couple of years. How that plane will look after 10 or more years use I shudder to think.

I suspect that the 787-200 or whatever they call the "2.0" version will be a good plane, but I’d hate to be in charge of maintaining the oldest versions.

 

</Rant>

In fairness to Galton House, Virgin and Boeing, I arrived back at Heathrow at 06.00 safe, sound and slightly ahead of schedule. In the words of Old Blue Eyes:

It’s very nice to go trav’ling
To Paris, London and Rome
It’s oh so nice to go trav’ling
But it’s so much nicer, yes it’s so much nicer, to come home…

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The Andrew Johnston Iceland Camouflage Masterclass

The Andrew Johnston Iceland Camouflage Masterclass
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 26-08-2011 15:19 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/125s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 28.0mm (~45.4mm) | Location: Kirkjufell | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

The trouble is, there’s a recurring theme here…

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The Andrew Johnston Namib Desert Camouflage Masterclass

The Andrew Johnston Namib Desert camouflage masterclass
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The Twin-Lens Reflex :)

Shooting with twin Canons
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 28-11-2018 08:52 | Resolution: 5184 x 2920 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/800s | Aperture: 5.0 | Focal Length: 16.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

I noticed while gathering for the bushman walk that five of our group were "packing" a pair of Canons. This shot was inevitable.

Thanks to John B for the title – excellent photographer’s joke. I am happy to explain if required.

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The British Government Reviews Its Brexit Strategy

Poly-tickle commentary
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 24-11-2018 09:49 | Resolution: 2409 x 3213 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 4.9 | Focal Length: 193.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

Sorry it’s a bit fuzzy and not properly focused, but that’s nothing to do with my photography!

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The Decisive Moment

My old mum has recently moved from her house to a smaller retirement flat, and is still in the process of sorting out some of the accumulated lifetime’s possessions. On this visit, I was presented with a large carrier bag of old cameras.

I have to say, I wasn’t expecting miracles. Mum and Dad never spent a vast amount on photographic equipment, usually buying a mid-range "point and click", using it till it stopped working and then buying another.

First out, an ancient Canon Powershot, for 35mm film. It probably works, but I tried explaining to Mum that there’s no longer any real market for such items.

"No-one really wants the bother of getting films developed. You don’t – you have a digital camera yourself now, you were using it last night."

"But surely there are people who love old cameras."

"Yes there are, but they have to be a bit special. If this was a Leica, with a little red dot on it, it would probably be worth some money, but not an ancient cheap Canon."

To settle it, I opened up my laptop and had a look on eBay. There were a couple, for about £15 and about £12, both with no bids.

Next up, a similar Panasonic. This still had a film in it, which was suspicious as it probably meant that the camera had died mid-holiday and been abandoned. eBay suggested an asking price somewhere in the range £8 to £11.99. Getting worse.

"I could offer it to the charity shop" said Mum, hopefully.

"Well you could, but don’t be surprised if they are underwhelmed." I told her about my recent experience of having a perfectly good 32" flatscreen TV rejected by our local charity shop, which didn’t encourage her.

"But surely if things still work?"

"I keep on saying, Mum, things have to be a bit special. You know, a Leica or something, with a nice red dot."

Next out of the bag was a Konica. This was a slightly different shape and had the rather ominous indicator "110" in the model number. That’s definitely not a good sign, I mean can you actually still get and process 110 film? (That’s assuming that you can see any point in shooting a format which is distinctly inferior to 35mm in the first place.) Amazingly enough there is one on eBay. £2.99, no bids…

"OK", says Mum, deciding that there’s no point in arguing that one. "There’s one box left in the bag."

What? Hoist by my own petard! I mean, what were the chances??

Sadly it’s actually only a slide box, and eBay suggests that it’s going to get £20 at best, but I am now honour-bound to do my best to find it a good home.

Be careful what you wish for…

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