Saturday, November 14, 2009

Things that piss me off: the way computers handle updates

I rarely comment on computer issues in this blog, because my company's business includes a great deal of computer hardware and software testing for technology vendors. We work for all sorts of companies, and we don't take sides. As I often explain, we endorse results and facts, never products.

I feel it's fair to write this post, however, because all the computers I've used fail in this area.

The situation that annoys me is quite common: You're working away, and your computer (PC or Mac or whatever) announces that updates are available. Being a good citizen of the computing ecosystem, you tell it to install them. More times than not, at some point during the process the system will inform you that to complete the updates, it must restart. That demand is fair enough, because you're almost certainly running code that it needs to change.

At that moment, however, most of us have a lot going on. For me, at almost all times at least the following apps are running: email, word processing, file explorer/finder, chat, and a Web browser with multiple open tabs. Quite often, many more apps are live.

After the restart, basically nothing will be running (this varies slightly by OS, but no key apps return).

This behavior is completely avoidable. Every OS and every well-behaved application should be able to work with an API (application programming interface) that allows the OS to say to the app, "Save your state, because I'm restarting." The app should do that and tell the OS when it's done. When the computer has restarted, another call in the API should let the OS say to the app, "We're back, so restore your state." The app should then put you back right where you were. At the end of the process, the OS should put the focus where it was before the restart, so that you could literally resume typing from where you last were.

The win for users would be enormous. Sure, you might have to go get something to drink while the updates finish and the system restores itself, but you already have to do that. What you wouldn't have to do is open all your apps, open the active data files, and so on. When the computer returned, it would be ready for you to work.

All of this is possible. Updates are not going away anytime soon, so OS and computer vendors should make them as painless as possible.

The Men Who Stare at Goats

I went to this movie because its cast was wonderful and its premise was silly enough to be entertaining. I expected to be gravely disappointed, but I felt compelled to see it anyway.

In many ways, the film was tailor-made to annoy me. It relies on voice-over. It starts slowly and with relatively uninteresting bits. Its plot careens about in almost random episodes that make you feel as if it's going nowhere.

So, why did I love it?

I'm not entirely sure, but I have a few clues. First, I laughed a lot, and that's a good thing. The cast was indeed wonderful. All the big-name actors you see in the trailer stick to their characters, and they deliver the goods. (Kevin Spacey had the weakest character and the most unremarkable performance, but near the end he does just enough to salvage the role. None of this is his fault, by the way; the script just didn't give him much to work with.) The events all contributed, though most of them obliquely, to the ending. By the time we reached that ending, I cared what happened.

Most of all, though, what charmed me is that the movie ultimately refused to back away from the thin line it was walking until the very last scene, when it firmly and completely chose a side--and it was the side I wanted.

I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, so I'm not going to tell you more. If you're heading to a theater anytime soon, check it out.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Designing the perfect hotel room: the bathtub

Specifying the ideal hotel shower consumed two lengthy blog posts. My hope is that the tub proves simpler, but we shall see.

Let's do the easy parts first: All the towels, for this and the shower and the rest of the bathroom, should be from the same source: Liddell linens, as I mentioned in the shower post. A large number of towels, at least three sets of both the normal and the huge size, should also be easily reachable from the tub, as should washcloths. Finally, the tub should share with the shower the traits of having built-in drains all around it, so any overflow trickles quietly away, and a large exit mat that is comfortable and heavily absorbent, perhaps in part by being over a fine mesh drain.

Now, to the specifics of the tub itself. A large, Japanese-style soaking style would be best, one in which you can fill it so high that a tall person can easily have the water reach his or her neck. It should be big enough for two large people (or four very friendly normal ones) to be comfortable in it. If two people are in it, each should be able to lean back and relax. We're talking at least six feet long by four feet wide. If you're alone and want to stretch out, you should be able to do so.

Yes, this design means you could drown in it. A waiver of liability for the tub and shower should be part of what you must sign upon check-in.

To fill this beast, you should have four faucets, each capable of pounding out so much water that you would have trouble holding your hand under one. The hot water must, of course, be unlimited; as with the shower, point-of-contact heating would be best.

For those who are worried about the eco implications of all the water I'm consuming, my dream hotel is, of course, using solar power to clean and reuse all gray water.

Jets, lots of them and at different heights, are mandatory. All four sides should have jets that could hit at least your lower and upper back, as well as your legs. They should be easily controlled from buttons on any of a set of four diagrams within comfortable reach of either occupant.

The surface of the tub should be heated so that when you get in, you never experience cold if you don't want it.

An HD TV, with music channels and built-in speakers providing surround sound, should be viewable from either position without having to crane your neck; yes, this means two TVs, one above either end of the tub. You should be able to dock your iPod to the same sound system. The same waterproof touch pad that manages the jets should control them.

All along one side of the tub should run a soft shelf on which you can put your drink or book, as well as hand towels for drying off before picking up said book.

To enter the tub, you should be able to walk up steps at one end or just step over the tub's lip. The steps should have handholds on either end and be non-slip.

I've had tubs that hit some of the high points of this one in a few hotels, notably in an otherwise unremarkable establishment in Memphis and in the Grand Hyatt Roppongi Hills in Tokyo, but I've never come close enough to satisfy me.

Now, back to you, other travelers and interested readers: What would you change or add?

A video referral from Sarah

She turned me on to this video, which a quarter million folks have already seen, and I had to agree with her that it was beautiful. Don't let the title put you off, and watch to the very end.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thank you, vets

I observed on a panel at World Fantasy Con that society creates a group of people to do the jobs normal folks don't want to do and arguably shouldn't have to do. The ability to avoid those jobs is, in fact, part of the fabric of society that lets people stay normal. Cops and firefighters are in that group.

Veterans are most definitely in that group.

I don't always agree with where we send our soldiers. I thought the Viet Nam war was senseless when it was going on, and I still think so. I don't believe we should have gone to war in Iraq.

I don't, though, blame the troops. They're men and women who served their nation the way they were brought up to believe was right, and they gave a great deal in that service; in far too many cases, they gave everything.

You can't ask for a better non-bloody representation of how crappy life as a soldier can be during war time than this photo at the bottom of this page on David Drake's site. Yes, that's a remarkably skinny Dave in Viet Nam on shit-burning detail.

Dave is my friend, and though he was lucky enough to survive the war, he still carries it with him every day. He always will.

My stepfather, Ed, went ashore at Okinawa. The pieces of shrapnel in his body were setting off metal detectors five decades later, but he'd tell you that was no big deal. If you listened closely and waited a long time, you could learn that he meant it, because those pieces of metal were far lighter and less troublesome burdens than the memories he also carried.

These and many other vets have touched my life personally. I owe them and all the other vets my gratitude. We all do. Today, let's be sure to pause for a moment and say, thank you.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Food porn with me

As I mentioned a while ago, Chantrelle, the operator of the fun and informative site,, did an interview with me during our amazing meal at The French Laundry. The interview is online now, so if you're interested, check it out here. I don't think my answers are particularly interesting or special, but if you want to know what I consider to be the sexiest food or my favorite national cuisine, you can find out there. Plus, her photos of the food and in-depth run of the meal are definitely enjoyable.

As much as I enjoy food porn (which is basically text and especially pictures of great dishes), I have to say that I second Chantrelle's desire for smell-o-vision on the Web--with suitable controls, of course. Her picture of the box of white truffles is lovely, but getting to smell them was another, more powerful experience entirely.

On second thought, I must retract that desire for smell-o-vision. I don't believe the Web is or should be entirely controllable, and the thought of giving billions of men--or even just the hackers--the ability to email or post their smelliest farts is frightening indeed.

Not that I'd do it, of course. Unless I was provoked. Or really proud.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Designing the perfect hotel room: the shower, part 2

I received a lot of comments and email messages about my first crack at designing the perfect hotel room shower, and many of them included valuable improvements. I then improved on some of the improvements. So, to complete the shower, I list here, in no particular order, the additional requirements for it:

The shower door should not in any way conflict with the bathroom door or any of the rest of the bathroom.

If the shower door swings out, there must be enough room that it cannot interfere with the main bathroom door, the sink and counter area, or anything else.

The mirror should start at four feet high.

A five-foot-tall person who wants to check her/his face in the mirror should be able to do so without getting up on tippy toes.

Bars or hand grips all around.

Hey, we can be safe and pretty, too!

Operating the shower heads must be easy.

Using them should be either so easy that anyone can do it or well documented enough that infrequent visitors can figure it out easily--while in the shower. Related to this is that the marking of hot and cold should be obvious and consistent on every single head.

The shower mat should be large and safe and highly absorbent.

When you step outside the shower, you should step onto a soft, warm (via the heated floors), absorbent mat or towel that will not skid. I like the idea of a fine soft grating over a drain, or even a not quite so soft bamboo-type drain, but whatever it is, it should not move when you step on it.

The lighting should be bright and thorough but adjustable from within the shower.

The default should be a completely brightly lit shower, but for those who want it dimmer (and, let's face it, with a shower this awesome more than a few couples and/or groups are going to want to play in it), the controls should be easily accessible while you're in the shower. Yeah, I know that poses some tricky electrical problems, but having seen the pools and light shows in Las Vegas, and in particular those at Cirque's O, I'm confident we can deal with those issues.

No matter how long you're in the shower, no water should escape.

We're talking multiple excellent drains and a nice lip around the edge, at a minimum. Maybe even small drains around the shower's perimeter.

It must provide a "steam shower" option.

If you want to take some steam in your room, you should be able to do so, right there in your lovely shower.

Venting should be powerful and adjustable from within the shower.

If you don't want as much (or even any) steam, you should be able to have the vents remove it.


I'm hereby closing the shower design. Next up (possibly after a movie review and other random stuff): the tub! Then, the counters and sinks, and finally the rest of the bathroom.

Yeah, this is going to take me a while, but with a goal as lofty as the perfect hotel room, what would you expect?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Fedor is amazing

For those who don't follow MMA, last night CBS aired four fights that Strikeforce promoted in Chicago. The highlight and main event of the group was the heavyweight match between Fedor "The Last Emperor" Emelianeko and Brett "The Grim" Rogers. It was another win for Fedor, amazing not because he won, which everyone expected, but because of the path to victory.

Fedor, as pretty much everyone calls him, is a legendary heavyweight who entered the bout with 30 wins and 1 loss--and the loss was a stoppage due to a cut. He's really never been beaten.

Rogers had 10 wins and no losses and was the bigger of the two by over 30 pounds. He also had a huge reach advantage.

Rogers began by hitting Fedor with a jab that cut--and, as we later learned but suspected from watching, also broke--his nose. Fedor's expression never changed. Rogers did everything right in the first round, even escaping when Fedor took him down and reversing the position another time. I think you could make a good case that Rogers won the first round. Rogers definitely did everything he should have done to shake Fedor.

Rogers, though, was clearly gassing.

Fedor was not. His expression was also not visibly affected in any way by the first round's events. His face was battered, but he remained completely calm.

Fedor opened the second round looking more confident despite the broken nose and, we later learned, an injury to his left hand. He began hitting with more confidence. After a short back-and-forth bit, Fedor ducked under a Rogers punch and hit with an almost jumping right hook that sent Rogers down and, after a few follow-up shots, gave Fedor the win.

Fedor doesn't look like the best heavyweight MMA fighter alive. He doesn't look a lot like a fighter. His expression almost never changes. He won't speak to the press before a fight. He lives and trains in his hometown. He doesn't ever seem to worry about the latest techniques or the hottest training camp.

He just wins, his expression never changing, a slight smile at the end all the public celebration he seems to permit himself.

In a world full of athletes hyping their every accomplishment, and in a sport charged with chest-thumping fighters trying to boil off their testosterone after shorter than expected fights, Fedor's unchanging demeanor remains an amazing and welcome change--and his skills once again prove to be beyond question.


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