Prague photos & a monitor background

I finally edited and uploaded to Flickr pictures from a trip I took to Prague a year ago (August 2008).

A few of them looked like they’d be nice as screen backgrounds, so I experimented with making backgrounds in the correct monitor sizes. I have this one right now on my Mac – external screen and the Macbook Pro’s built-in LCD:

TV Tower in Žižkov with David Černý's sculptures
TV Tower in Žižkov with David Černý's sculptures

Click on the image (or the following link) for the 1920×1200 version, or choose one of the smaller sizes: 1680×1050, 1600×1200, 1440×900, 1024×768.

Let me know what you think of the quality, the sizes, and if you like it, in which case I can make more. I didn’t want the image sizes to be too large, but there is a quality trade-off involved.

Unlike the rest of this blog, the CC License on these is BY-NC-SA.

And who, exactly, are you?

I spent the last weekend, plus days before and after, in Portland, Oregon (at the 22nd annual convention of the usenet group soc.motss). This is a city that, even by the high standards of the urban European, has a truly impressive public transport system. Not only is it complete and fast, it’s also intelligently priced, ie, low, with free rides in the city center, and bike-friendly.

One bit of linguistic interest is worth mentioning here: The announcement made on some of the MAX light rail/streetcar/tramway (pick your term) lines to indicate at which side to get off the train at the next stop. Announcements in these trains are made by an automated, prerecorded voice, first in English, then in Spanish.

The text of the announcement, after indicating the next stop’s name?

Doors to my left.

This is a bit startling. I can see why an overly nit-picky planner would want to avoid “Doors to your left” — after all, passengers may be oriented every which way in the carriage. But saying “… my left” is presuming we have a speaker here. It’s not the driver. But someone or something speaking in a disembodied voice.

Now while there is indeed a well-defined left and right relative to a moving tramway, the problem is to ascribe a sense of agency to it that would allow it to speak to us in the first person.

I have not quite succeeded in finding out if the sentient tramway is restricted to the English — I thought I heard “puertas a la izquierda”, ie “doors to the left“, but this page claims it’s “puerta a mi izquierda”.

Portland, the City of Roses and sentient, anthropomorphic streetcars.

Why I like my showers with two degrees of freedom

Imagine your basic shower — in a cabin or above a bath tub. The ones I’ve known for most of my life tend to have two knobs: one to adjust the flow of hot water, one to to do the same for cold water. Or else they have a lever you can pull and rotate: pulling increases the flow rate, rotating changes the temperature. The end result is the same: you can make your water flow more or less copiously, and you can make it hotter or colder.

This means our shower has two degrees of freedom: You can change two variables independently (within limits). Unfortunately, some hotels seem to consider this system too hard for their guests to comprehend and present the hapless traveller with a single, often strangely shaped knob. What it does if turned, twisted, pushed, pulled, shoved or glared at, the traveller hasn’t got the foggiest.[*] In most cases, what you get is the single-degree-of-freedom knob: the more you turn on the water, the warmer it gets. However, the problem is: you don’t know this yet.

Here is why I think this is a bad idea, from recent practical experience:

  1. You get ready for the shower, and identify the shower controls. One single knob, function unknown.
  2. You twist it experimentally, taking care to stay out of the reach of the shower head (or tap). Water comes out. Good.
  3. The water is cold. Well, that’s probably normal: let’s let it flow for a while.
  4. The water doesn’t get any warmer. So this is probably the cold water knob. You go in search of any hot water knobs, levers, buttons, pedals or other controls.
  5. After having finished your search of the shower area (naked), you decide the knob is all you have. Water is still cold. The only thing you can do is to turn it on a little more.
  6. The water is still cold. Or maybe a little bit more lukewarm? You twiddle the knob. Water splashes back and forth. Yeah, definitely getting a little more lukewarm.
  7. You carefully close off all shower curtains, take your heart in both hands, and give the knob a good strong twist. And wait a while.
  8. YAY, finally, warm water. You take your shower.

Dear hotel designers: Presenting tired travellers who’ve likely never been to your establishment with anything but a regular, clearly labled, two-degrees-of-freedom shower control knob system is not good user interface design.

[*] These things can get exceedingly complex — the worst I’ve ever had was in a swanky resort in Windsor I stayed at for a company function: the knob had red and blue dots in odd places, ridges and ratchets, could be turned a little, then pushed or pulled, and then turned in an entirely different way again… the frigging bath mat came with instructions for use, but I wasn’t the only one who’d stood naked, wondering at it for 10 min, before succeeding entirely by chance (or, as were, going unshowered).