Category Archives: Thoughts on the World

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.
  • 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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That’s an Understatement!

"A bit of a wasps' nest"...
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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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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
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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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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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Wonderful Things

Statue of Tutankhamun
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M4 | Date: 30-12-2019 12:42 | Resolution: 3194 x 4259 | ISO: 800 | Exp. bias: -0.7 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 4.0 | Focal Length: 19.9mm (~54.0mm)

Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh

Ahead of the opening of the new museum at Giza dedicated entirely to Tutankhamun, some of the treasures from his tomb have been doing a last "world tour", including London’s Saatchi Gallery. They will be there until 3rd May.

We visited the other day, and I simply have insufficient superlatives. "Blown away" maybe just covers it. It’s hard to credit that many of these beautiful statues, jewels and other grave goods are over three thousand years old.

Brooch from the "Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh" Exhibition (Show Details)

I would also like to say a big "thank you" to the exhibition’s organisers. The numbers were being managed perfectly – enough that a reasonable number of people get to see the treasures, but not so busy that there was any jostling or a problem if you wanted to study an item closely or take a photo. Buggies and large bags aren’t allowed, so that filters out two of the main causes of congestion. This also ensures that the children present are old enough to appreciate it, and I have to say it was a delight to see so many youngsters engaged with the exhibits, not just dashing from screen to screen.

Tutankhamun and admirer at the "Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh" Exhibition (Show Details)

The captions and explanations are displayed either above or below the exhibits, large enough to be read easily without constant manipulation of glasses. These include both practical explanations, and apposite quotes from The Book Of The Dead.

The exhibition is also, bar none, the most photography friendly one I have ever attended. There’s no restriction on taking images, and little on equipment although flash is banned and large kits discouraged under the "large bags" rule. Tripods are not explicitly banned, but similarly covered and I didn’t see anyone attempting to use one. However there’s no need for them as the exhibits are all well lit, with dark backgrounds and a clear attempt to avoid reflections, hotspots and distractions. I just used my diminutive Sony RX100 mk IV, but any medium-sized DSLR or mirrorless with 24-70mm zoom lens would be equally acceptable and successful.

I was very please with the results from the Sony. Most didn’t need any correction beyond what Capture One applies by default with maybe some highlight and shadow recovery. For most images I just cropped in on the artefact, knocked the background back to black, and removed any remnants of the surroundings, for a "pseudo catalogue" look. Alternatively you could leave it lighter and include a bit of context, like my photo of a young admirer above.

The ancient Egyptians believed that you only truly die when the last person speaks your name. If that’s right then Tutankhamun succeeded in his quest for eternal life beyond his wildest imaginings. If you get a chance, then go to the exhibition and speak his name too.

Statue of Horus from the "Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh" Exhibition (Show Details)
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A European Visitor’s Guide to Hawaii

Looking down to the Na'pali Coast from the top of Waimea Canyon
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 02-10-2019 12:35 | Resolution: 5583 x 3489 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/160s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | Location: Waimea Canyon | State/Province: Haena, Kauai, Hawaii | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Sunbathing, service, costs and chickens!

Hawaii is a great place to visit, but based on our recent experience some things may come as a surprise to European visitors, used to comparable destinations in Europe, the Caribbean or mainland USA. For those planning a trip, here’s what you really need to know.

The TL;DR version:

  • Sunbathing is not a thing
  • Housekeeping is not a thing
  • Service is not a thing, especially in the evening
  • Opening hours are only just a thing
  • Coffee shops are almost not a thing
  • Public restrooms are not a thing
  • Chickens are everywhere but the roosters can’t tell the time
  • Bedding is wildly inappropriate
  • It’s frighteningly, eye-wateringly expensive, and accommodation is a complete rip-off
  • However, the scenery is great, and Americans do organised tours very, very well

Sunbathing is Not a Thing

Here’s a pattern which should be familiar to travellers to Southern Europe, North Africa and the Caribbean (and indeed most sunny parts of the world which welcome tourists). On a quiet day, or maybe after a busy day’s exploring, you go down to the beach or pool. You lie on a sunbed and slather on the sunscreen. Some helpful lad or lass brings you a nice cocktail. If you’re not at your hotel maybe the deal is that you pay a local a few dollars for the use of the sunbed, and as an added incentive he sells a few more drinks at his bar. Win-win.

Not on Hawaii, or at least not anywhere we managed to go. The concept of “lying in the sun” appears to be an almost alien one, and the idea of practical support for this activity almost taboo. Some beaches have a car park and a changing/toilet block, but that’s about it. Nowhere did we see sunbed rentals or a beach bar or similar. You are welcome to lie on the beach on a towel and bring your own supplies in a cooler, but that requires rather more specific provision than most people doing a fly-drive will have with them. Now it’s possible that this is to try and keep the beaches “unspoilt”, which would be fair enough, but then you’d expect to see an alternative at the hotels. Only one hotel in our entire three weeks had sunbeds by a pool, and that area was plastered with signs forbidding almost all enjoyable activities, including the possession of alcoholic drinks anywhere nearby. Of the rest, a couple had chairs which could be moved into a relaxing corner in the sun, most didn’t even get that far.

Mainland USA doesn’t have this problem. The two California hotels at each end of our most recent trip, including Handlery’s within 100m of Union Square in San Francisco, both provided for a quiet hour in the sun. We’ve even managed to lie by the pool in Idaho, Montana and Vermont – under glass, admittedly, but that’s a good solution in colder climes. It’s just something which decent mid-range hotels do. Why the Hawaiians don’t provide for you to quietly lie in their sunshine is a mystery.

From the beach outside the Hana Kai Lodge (Show Details)

Housekeeping is Not a Thing

Most hotels in civilised countries service your room on a daily basis, making up the bed, changing at least the linen you’ve left in the bath-tub, replenishing supplies. This is not a regular provision in Hawaii. There were a couple of honourable exceptions, mainly in the most expensive properties, but as a rule the patterns were either “every three days” (= “once in your stay if you’re lucky”) or even in one case “at the end of your stay” (= “None, but we can’t write that down on booking.com and we probably can’t get away without changing the sheets and towels for the next guests”). A couple of times we put in requests for some specific assistance with bedding and were completely ignored.

Service is Not a Thing, Especially in the Evening. Opening Hours Are Only Just a Thing

The lack of hotel housekeeping is one symptom of a more general challenge. A lot of Hawaiians seem to be unable to reconcile the fact that tourism is their major industry with the fact that this means operating shops, bars and so on for a reasonable number of hours in which tourists may wish to purchase what’s on offer, and then cheerfully providing service to the punters. It’s not so bad in restaurants where the serving staff rely on tips, but elsewhere it can be a real challenge to get any help. We stayed at one expensive lodge where there were no dedicated hotel staff – you had to ask in the shop and restaurant and see if anyone could help you. At the “No housekeeping ever” “boutique hotel” the woman who gave us our keys and showed us to the room literally ran in case we had questions or needed help. Another hotel staffed the office so rarely that we thought the manager was just another guest looking for help. Their check-out arrangements were positively Kafka-esque, with a large notice in the room demanding check-out before 11am, but an office which did not open until after that time. Good luck if something needed sorting out on the bill.

Opening hours on Maui and Kauai are so arcane and limited they make a joke of it. We found shops which didn’t open until 11am but were shut again by the end of the afternoon. On our drive down Haleakala we found a wonderful coffee shop but arrived only 10 minutes before it closed – at 2pm. On our day in Hana we failed: that coffee shop had turned off its coffee machine at 3pm, and only sold banana bread by the whole loaf, not the slice. Paia may be a busy tourist centre, but try getting a coffee or a beer after 8pm…

From the summit of Haleakala. Mauna Kea in the background. (Show Details)

Coffee Shops Are Almost Not a Thing

Even if you’re there in core hours (11am – 2pm, any day except Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday ), it can be tricky to find a good latte in some centres. Even some quite substantial shopping streets appear not to have a coffee shop, or if they do, it’s well hidden and probably shut! Maybe it’s the lower popularity of hot drinks in the warm climate, but where you do find a place with a coffee machine and an open door they are usually doing a steady trade.

At the same time, sparkling water seems to be a bit of a novelty, and we found several locations where this wasn’t an option. That’s even more of a mystery. You shouldn’t go thirsty on Hawaii, but some compromise may be required!

Public Restrooms Are Not a Thing

Hawaii can be a challenging place to get caught short. It’s not so bad if you’re somewhere run by the Parks Service, or a shopping mall or larger restaurant, but most shops and smaller cafés have a sign in the door “No Public Restroom”. This doesn’t just mean “customers only”, it can mean “no customer restroom at all”, even in medium-sized restaurants, which elsewhere in the world would by law have to provide a customer WC. Keep your fingers, and your legs, crossed!

Luau Kalamaku (Show Details)

Chickens, Chickens Everywhere

Wherever I travel there are species which have adapted to living off the scraps of human activity: pigeons, the little brown birds on Barbados, the feral dogs of Bhutan. In Hawaii it’s feral chickens. If you’re eating outside you’re unlikely to miss one or two padding around, and it’s rare that you can’t hear a cockerel. The islanders welcome them as they also feed on insects which would otherwise be a problem, and the chickens are effectively protected.

This would be OK if their timekeeping followed acceptable norms, with roosters announcing the dawn but keeping schtum the rest of the time. Unfortunately they don’t, frequently crowing all the way through night and day. Added to inappropriate bedding and noisy air-conditioning this contributes to the likelihood of disturbed sleep.

After watching a few we can confirm that Hawaiian chickens have adapted to modern life and have got bloody good at crossing roads. It’s just a shame they can’t tell the time.

The "Jurassic Park" trees, and a feral chicken, in Allerton Gardens (Show Details)

Wildly Inappropriate Bedding

Hawaii is a bunch of tropical islands. Unless you’re right at the top of Mauna Kea or Heleakala, the temperature usually reaches 30°C in the day, and rarely dips below 20°C at night. It’s therefore puzzling to find that the standard bedding provision is a nice warm 15 Tog duvet! The problem with this is that it may be just cold enough you need something, but a duvet is massive overkill. A couple of times we tried getting said duvet downgraded to “just a sheet, please”, but without success. Eventually we just got into the habit of extracting the duvet from its cover and using the latter on its own. At least with only intermittent housekeeping we weren’t having to do this every day…

It’s Frighteningly, Eye-Wateringly Expensive

Hawaii is scarily expensive. I accept that it costs a fair amount to get there in the first place, as you’re travelling halfway around the world. Also I know that all holiday costs for British visitors have been inflated by about 20-25% after the 2016 Brexit vote, and I have to discount that. However even comparing like for like Hawaii is just so much more expensive.

The entry level cost of accommodation in 2019 seems to be about $180-$200 a night. For that you get very little: a small room, minimal service, no food, maybe a coffee machine and free toiletries, maybe not. (One of the hotels actually listed “toilet paper” as a specific provision, I kid you not.) There won’t be any sort of a view or casual/communal seating area. If you are on an upper floor you will be personally manhandling your luggage up and down stairs. If you want something a bit better the price rises quite steeply – the nicer lodges we stayed in were all between $250 and $300 a night. To put that in perspective, we have four other experiences of spending $180 or less per night on accommodation in the last year:

  • Copenhagen is a notoriously expensive city, but this July about $180 per night got us a very nice hotel about 100m from the tourist hub of Nyhavn, and within a short walk of most of Copenhagen’s other attractions. The hotel had very helpful 24 hour front desk staff, a high quality hot and cold breakfast included in the price, an outdoor bar overlooking the harbour for when the sun was out and an indoor bar for when it wasn’t. We had a small but fully appointed room on the 5th floor overlooking Sankt Annae Platz, with a view of the beautiful old port authority buildings.
  • The hotel in Pacifica (just outside San Francisco) on the way back from Hawaii cost about $170 per night. That included breakfast, a sea view, a large room with jacuzzi, and a front desk who cheerfully booked us in, including a room change to avoid too many stairs, at 11pm.
  • We paid about $180 per night to stay in a Norfolk mansion house for my friend’s 60th birthday. As well as the elegant building set in extensive and beautiful gardens, the cost included breakfast, snacks and some booze!
  • The Heure Bleue Palais in Essaouira, Morocco was easily 5 star, excellent service – nothing too much trouble, great food with a wonderful cooked breakfast included in the price, top location in the walls of the old city with a view of the whole town from the roof-top pool. It cost about $145 per night.

At the other end of the scale the better accommodations in Hawaii could be compared in quality and provision to something like the Peaks of Otter Lodge at which we stayed on our 2014 trip to the USA South-East. That was probably the most expensive accommodation of that trip, at about $140 per night.

The Hawaii accommodation costs do seem to have escalated dramatically in the last couple of years. We had originally booked our trip in 2016 and had to cancel at short notice, but re-instated it this year with almost exactly the same itinerary. That means I can directly compare 2016 and 2019 prices. One example, the Kula Lodge cost less than $210 per night in 2016, but more than $290 this year. The Hana Kai had also increased by about $80 per night in the same period. These increases of 35% or more are massively higher than inflation. It’s not clear whether this is a continuing trend, or there’s a common one-off cause.

Food and drink are also much more expensive than elsewhere. Outside the very centre of San Francisco, the going rate for a beer is about $4. Take into account the fact that a US pint is about 20% smaller than a UK one, and prices are comparable to home. However in Hawaii we were paying up to $8 or $9 for a pint of beer! It’s the same story for a latte – about $4 most places in the UK or California, up to twice that in Hawaii.

Waterfall from the Garden of Eden (Show Details)

On a Positive Note…

This might all sound a bit negative, and I don’t want to put readers off going to Hawaii, but just help to set realistic expectations. We enjoyed our trip, but it was impossible to not feel somewhat ripped off by the poor service and high costs. If we’d been primed properly on what to expect we might have ridden more easily over the challenges, and enjoyed the good bits even more.

The scenery is great, especially Haleakala on Maui and Waimea Canyon on Kauai. We saw everything from lush greenery to a volcanic “moonscape” so convincing it’s where they trained the Apollo astronauts. Despite the dire warnings you read in some places even the Road to Hana is perfectly straightforward to drive over its entire length. Hawaii is a feast for the eyes.

The various organised tours and trips all worked very well. Each had a friendly, knowledgeable and helpful guide/driver/pilot and each was an experience we will treasure. While not cheap, the prices were comparable to similar events elsewhere, and represent decent overall value. I could certainly recommend the Blue Horizon helicopter tour of Kauai, the Pearl Harbor and Allerton Gardens tours, and the Laua Kalamaku.

The highlands of Kauai from a helicopter (Show Details)

Regarding travel, eating and accommodation the trick is probably to do some independent research. TripAdvisor seems to reflect reality fairly well, whereas sites like Booking.Com seem to have less detailed independent advice.

Plan, set your expectations, and you’ll really enjoy Hawaii.

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Death of an Alien

An Upgrade Too Far, OR: Don’t Count Your Aliens Before They Explode Out Of Your Thorax!

brian-mcmahon-vPoKUPztOZM-unsplash

Prior to 2009, I regularly upgraded our desktop PC / server, changing the entire hardware and/or rebuilding from scratch every year or two. There were several different reasons: this was a time of rapid change in the PC arena; I always rapidly outgrew the available computing power; and on at least two occasions the system had suffered complete failure of motherboard or processor and just refused to be revived.

By 2009 things were settling down, with seven being a sort of “magic number”: Windows 7 was clearly a better, stable version of Windows, and Intel’s Core i7 looked like the powerful but usable processor we’d all been waiting for. I’d been doing some research and everyone raved about Alienware machines, so I bit the bullet, invested about £1,100 and purchased an Alienware Aurora. This, despite being the “smaller” of the two Alienware desktop/tower models, turned out to be over 40cm long, 16cm high and weighed about 15kg. (See The Alien Has Landed, and It’s &*&^(* Huge). So much for PCs getting smaller.

OK, it took up some desk space. But it worked. It sat there, for the most part quietly, and just got on with everything I threw at it. It acted as desktop, server, virtualisation and development platform, PVR and the rest without complaint. It was almost seven years before I found a task which occupied the CPU fully for more than a few seconds at a time. Converting recorded HD TV from MPEG2 to MP4 would keep the processor busy for a few hours, but the machine remained stable and fully usable even under full load.

Fairly early on one of the original hard disks failed, but gracefully and I just moved the content to a new one before there was any serious issue. At about the 7 year mark the graphics card failed a bit more dramatically (its main cooling fan died noisily), but a quick trip to PC World sourced a replacement and we were back up and running in a few hours. Excluding reboots, power cuts and a rebuild in 2013 when I upgraded the system disk to an SSD, I would be surprised if total downtime in 10 years totalled one day. That’s better than 99.97% availability.

The machine was originally billed as highly upgradeable and lived up to that billing. The original 2 slow hard disks became 9TB of fast SSDs. It gained four times the original RAM. The original was based on USB2, but USB3 support was easily added. It started off with one standard definition TV tuner and ended up with 4x HD tuners – my record was recording 8 concurrent programmes. With the looming end of support for Windows 7 a few weeks ago I installed Windows 10 build 1903, which went almost like clockwork, booting straight up with drivers for everything except the E-Sata port, and almost all software installed and ran as expected. I was almost ready to write an article praising the machine’s ability to take everything I threw at it.

I say “almost”. There was one caveat. Windows 10 build 1903 is more of a major upgrade than Microsoft have acknowledged, and it introduces some restrictions on virtualisation software. In particular VMWare Workstation has to be V15.1 or higher. I was previously running V12, but I accept spending about £100 every few years on an upgrade to the latest version, so cheerfully did so again. However as I installed the new version, I got a warning that the new version was not compatible with my CPU. Apparently a 10 year old processor, even a then top-spec Core i7, didn’t support a key feature required by newer versions of VMWare. A quick email to VMWare support confirmed the quandary – no version of VMWare supports both the latest version of Windows 10 and my CPU.

Now I could have left it there. I’m not using virtualisation that much at the moment, and it’s still fine on my laptops. I could have. I should have. But those who know me know that wasn’t going to happen. This was now "a problem" which I had to solve. Some quick research suggested that my processor, the i7-920, was succeeded by a directly compatible faster version, the i7-990X, and that switching to the 990X should be straightforward. Then almost like a good omen, out of the blue I got a phone call from VMWare following up to make sure I was happy with their handling of my email query. Have you ever heard of such a thing? The very helpful chap looked it up – yes, the 990X should work well.

eBay provided a 990X, and on Friday I powered down expecting another painless upgrade. The chip slotted neatly into its zero insertion force socket, I re-mounted the cooler unit, and switched on. The fans all ran, but there was no sign of the machine booting up. I removed the new processor and put the original one back in. Switched on, same result. Fans and power supply OK, but no sign of booting up.

Over the next couple of hours I worked through all the usual options: re-seating the PCI cards, checking cables, re-setting the BIOS. Still nothing. The Alien was dead. My attempted upgrade had killed it.

I awoke on Saturday morning, with several plans going around in my head. However a quick search of eBay suggested a solution which might not be possible in many locations: not one but several vendors within about an hour’s drive offering newer versions of the Alienware Aurora with collection in person an option. I latched onto a vendor who responded quickly to my query, and by early afternoon I was mounting my disks into a two year old Aurora R5. There was a moment of panic at first boot when it said it couldn’t find an operating system, but changing the boot mode from the newer UEFI to the older BIOS standard solved that, and up came Windows. I had to reboot several times and tweak a few drivers, but basically I just carried on where I left off before the "upgrade".

The new machine is much more compact than the old one, but installing the disks was a lot more fiddly, so there are pros and cons. It’s also not as fundamentally upgradeable as its predecessor, having for example connections for only 4 disks not 6. It will be interesting to see if it lasts as well.

The root cause of the older machine’s failure is not clear. Did I do something wrong, maybe screwing down the heatsink too firmly or causing some other physical damage? Did the new processor somehow overload something? I checked the power consumption and thermal rating of the two processors before I did the upgrade and they were almost identical, but maybe some second-order effect came into play.

Most likely, maybe there was a latent fault which just required the slightest provocation to trigger. This is a known challenge maintaining old or very complex systems, which may tick over quite happily, but even as much as a reboot may destabilise them. I remember my father’s story that one of the counter-intuitive findings of very early Operations Research during WWII was that it was actually better to maintain bombers less often, as the destablising effect of frequent maintenance could cause more operational errors than it saved.

What seems undebateable is that if I had left well alone then the system would probably have continued working stably for some time, but whether for 5 years or 5 days I have no way of telling.

While it’s sad that I managed to kill the old machine literally a few days short of its 10th birthday, on this occasion it’s a nuisance not a disaster. Ironically I had actively considered buying a completely new system before the Windows update, but rejected it for cashflow reasons, and because the old system was "working so well". I was aware that attempting to change a core component on such an old machine might have unintended consequences, and while maybe my Plan B should have been more precisely articulated, the version I came up with worked well. The two year old chassis has got me almost the whole way for about half the cost, and fits well with my general approach to hardware.

At the risk of changing my movie metaphor from Alien to Terminator, I do wonder if the upgrade had somehow become inevitable, like the rise of the machines at the start of each new film after being comprehensively prevented at the end of the previous one… If so the inevitability was probably in my subconscious, as my conscious objective was to defer the larger upgrade by attempting the smaller one, albeit with an acknowledged risk.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That is, unless you really want a new one. In that case, fix away!

Posted in PCs/Laptops, Thoughts on the World | Leave a comment

Pearl Harbor

USS Missouri, Pearl Harbor
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M4 | Date: 07-10-2019 20:53 | Resolution: 3648 x 3648 | ISO: 125 | Exp. bias: -0.7 EV | Exp. Time: 1/640s | Aperture: 2.8 | Focal Length: 12.8mm (~35.0mm) | Location: USS Missouri, Pearl Harbor | State/Province: Pu‘uloa, Honolulu, Hawaii | See map

Day 16

Today we have another long-awaited organised tour: Pearl Harbor. Preparations are complicated by an additional security directive since we tried to arrange the same trip in 2016 – you are allowed no bags of any form, quite a challenge if you’re going to be out all day and one of you is not big into pockets.

Frances does have one pair of pink trousers with pockets, and is busy stuffing them when there is a loud cry of pain. We discover that the rear pockets are partially closed with dressmaking pins, from a previous start to removing the pockets altogether. Hoist by her own petard, I think they call that.

An aside: this is yet another arguably pointless example of American “security by theatre”. At no point in the day are we closer to the operational parts of Pearl than the range of a very high-powered rifle. We interact mainly with Park Service rather than Naval personnel, and at no point does anyone X Ray us, pat us down or ask us to disclose the contents of our pockets, so it’s hard to see why a small camera bag or purse would be such a risk.

Our taxi from the hotel arrives bang on time, vindicating the hotel staff, but the driver then announces that he has only been on the job a few days… Why is there only one city in the world which regards “taxi driver” as a qualified profession? However thanks to our previous reconnaissance we get promptly to the pick up point and meet our tour. The same cannot be said for another couple, who get completely lost in the mall and have to be collected later.

The tour’s first stop is the USS Missouri. I have been fascinated by this ship’s story since we first saw Under Siege. She saw active service in WWII, including the Japanese surrender, was brought out of mothballs in the 80s and ended up firing the opening shots of the Gulf War, an event which is nicely echoed in the film.

Another aside: there are only two significant female characters in the film. Both play themselves – “Mighty Mo” of course (although her sister the USS Alabama did most of the “static” work), and Erika Eleniak, who really was Miss July ’89.

The tour of the Missouri is excellent. We are broadly familiar with the military history, but get a lot more detail about the formal end of the War. Mcarthur’s speech from the surrender ceremony still rings today:

Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won. The skies no longer rain death — the seas bear only commerce men everywhere walk upright in the sunlight. The entire world is quietly at peace. The holy mission has been completed. And in reporting this to you, the people, I speak for the thousands of silent lips, forever stilled among the jungles and the beaches and in the deep waters of the Pacific which marked the way. I speak for the unnamed brave millions homeward bound to take up the challenge of that future which they did so much to salvage from the brink of disaster.

We were not, however, aware that the Missouri survived a Kami Kaze strike. The ship and crew were very lucky – the bomb and much of the plane went to the bottom, leaving a small fire, a large dent in the deck edge still visible today, and no American casualties. When they were cleaning up they recovered the pilot’s body, and the Captain insisted he be given a military burial at sea, complete with a rapidly stitched together Rising Sun flag. Treat others as you would wish to be treated.

Lunch includes a whirlwind visit to the aviation museum, and then the afternoon is dedicated to visiting museums about the Pearl Harbor attack, and finally the USS Arizona which lies in the harbour with over 800 sailors and marines “eternally at their post”.

USS Missouri from the USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor (Show Details)

Day 16, Supplemental

While the day has been hot and sunny so far, on the ferry to the Arizona we watch rainclouds literally spilling over the ridges behind Honolulu and by the time we are back on the bus it’s tipping with rain.

The Call to Duty tour by Hoku has run like clockwork, no waiting in line, tickets and provisions handed to us exactly when needed, and Mark, our driver, is friendly, professional and very knowledgeable.

The last stage of the trip is a drive-by tour of the military cemetery in a small extinct volcanic caldera, and a number of Honolulu landmarks, although sadly the weather impinges somewhat on visibility.

We leave the bus in the centre of Waikiki to have a look at the posh hotels and shops. We know we’re in trouble when we go into the loos in one of the malls, and the seats have a control panel! Frances had a hot seat, but dared not try any adjustments.

Dinner is in a nice restaurant above one of the malls. Very pleasant, but essentially the same meal as the previous night costs twice as much.

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