Friday, June 30, 2006

Flag burning

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame has a brilliant post on the whole debate about banning the burning of American flags. Here are some choice extracts (but make sure you read the whole thing):
I was delighted to learn that American politicians are trying to make it illegal to burn the American flag. That can only mean that my dedicated public servants have finally solved the problems of crime, drugs, war, poverty, terrorism, healthcare, immigration... I was starting to worry that Congress was wasting my tax dollars doing stupid shit.

If flag burning becomes illegal, someone is going to start a company that sells flags that are slightly different from American flags just different enough to be legal to burn. The burnable flags might have 51 stars, or 14 stripes - something like that...
Then again, if you're a member of an Administration that has completely screwed up, getting us involved in a war we have no meaningful plan to win (or even a clear definition of victory), condemned our grandchildren to indentured servitude to pay off an ever increasing budget deficit, divided the country on pretty much every social issue you can think of, and taken us back to the darkest days of nativist xenophobia in the debate on immigration, I suppose you'd be looking to mobilise the base with something, anything...

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Back to the other side of the Pacific

I just got word today that the proposal I spent all of April and May working on in Australia was successful. I've never taken rejection well, so about this I am very happy (plus I have discovered that end of year bonuses have a positive correlation with actually selling stuff).

This means that I'll be back in Australia, specifically in the capital city of Canberra, from the middle of July for several weeks working on the project. It involves sensitive technology for the government, so if I tell you what it is I'll have to kill you, and I don't think "kill your readers" is on the list of things to do to increase the readership of your blog, so please don't make me talk.

Before that I need to go New Zealand's capital city of Wellington on July 11 to present a proposal to the government there (hopefully you've figured out the trend by now and won't ask). It will be nice to combine the two visits into a single trip across the Pacific.

While it's the middle of a very gorgeous summer here in Steamboat, it's the middle of the ski season in the Australian alps which are about three hours drive from Canberra. So Michael, if you're reading this, just because I got in 60 days this last season, doesn't mean I've had enough, so wax up your skis my friend!

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

King Arthur meets Darth Vader

If you're a fan of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the first Star Wars movie (no, not Episode I!) you'll absolutely love this.

The march of progress reaches Hanoi

I was fortunate enough to visit Hanoi for work in 2003 (twice). When people ask me what it was like I typically tell them about:

The history (like the thousand year old Temple of Literature)


The interesting if slightly run down French colonial architecture


Government buildings with hammer and sickle symbols (they obviously didn't get the "Communism is dead" memo) and all painted the same colour (which I've dubbed "Socialist Republic of Vietnam Yellow")


Motorcycles everywhere (and my very cute wife)


Young couples "parking" by one of of Hanoi's many lakes, cuddled up on the seat of a 125cc Yamaha which is truly a sight to behold (wish I'd got a picture of that but I didn't want to invade their "privacy")

And...

...the absence of McDonald's or KFC. Don't get me wrong - I'm not one of those misguided types who are opposed to McDonalds or KFC as symbols of American imperialism or some other politically correct nonsense. It was just my shorthand way of saying "I'm glad I went before it ended up like everywhere else."

Just in time it seems.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

It takes talent to...

...turn a potential customer into someone who is sufficient pissed off that they'll bag you on their blog. But a company called Casewise just managed to do that.

I use business process and architecture modelling tools a lot and someone mentioned their product. So I found their website where I saw this image:

Great I thought, so now I can download a copy and kill a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon comparing it to the product I currently use (yes I'm a geek - tell me something I didn't know).

So I click on it which took me to a page where I filled out my name, address, email address, phone number and all that stuff which then took me to another page where I had to create a username and password. A lot of work, but hey I'm about to get to play with an evaluation copy so that's OK. Only then was I presented with the following screen:

This is not "We've emailed the download code to the email address you gave us" but rather "You've given us all your details, but that counts for nothing. Contact us again and we'll think about it." What a marketing strategy that is. Not!

It's all about the user interface

Last year I said this about the importance of user interface design:

"Now that massive computing power can be provided in almost any device for a few hundred bucks, the real challenge is in making all of the complex and sophisticated functionality inside these boxes readily accessible to the average person."

This lesson was reinforced recently when the older of my two TiVo's died (hard disk failure).

I'd been thinking about upgrading my cable service to digital for some time, and I also wanted to have some HD content to make the most of my HD television, so rather than replace the TiVo (which TiVo offered to do for free - this is a company that knows about customer service) I decided to get the Comcast set top box with built in DVR.

With its dual tuner and HD capabilities the Motorola 6412 box provided by Comcast is in many ways far superior to the Series 2 TiVo. But in terms of usability it is pathetic when compared to the TiVo. The user interface is so bad that Marie has already asked me several times if we can't send it back and get another TiVo.

The design is particularly bad in terms of finding programs to record and reviewing your list of scheduled recordings, but there are a dozen other little things that are inferior. A good example is the way that the TiVo skips back a few seconds when you push play after you've been fast forwarding because the designers knew there would be a lag between seeing the end of the advertisements and hitting the play button. The Comcast box also doesn't have any of the Home Media features of the TiVo.

Here's the crazy thing. Motorola had two choices when they built their software. The first was to copythe TiVo user interface. The second was to develop their own lousy design which would have cost them more but this is the option they picked anyway! (1)

There is however a silver lining in this cloud. TiVo and Comcast are working on upgrading the Motorola boxes to the TiVo software later this year. I just need to distract Marie long enough.

(1) OK they couldn't just copy it. But they could have done something quite similar without running afoul of copyright laws. I have Windows Media Center on my home office computer and the DVR user interface clearly follows the same paradigms as the TiVo.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Can you hear me now?

I got my first cell phone in 1992. In the 14 years since, the only major failures I've had, either in terms of handsets dying or extended network outages, have been with Verizon. Last night Verizon coverage in Steamboat went out some time between 6 and 7 pm and wasn't restored until some time after midnight. I've never seen this before, even in some third world countries where I've spent extended periods of time. Unbelievably, at the same time our Comcast cable internet (which supports our VIOP phone service) also went out, so we were completely incommunicado.

Update: The plot thinkens. According to this report in today's newspaper, it seems another of my favourite telcos Qwest was involved. So it wouldn't have helped even if we'd kept our traditional land line as a backup.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The geekiest page on the web?

This page has got to be a strong candidate for geekiest page on the web. It applies a detailed knowledge of science and mathematics to a very serious analysis of a key element of the Star Wars storyline - the ability of the Death Star to destroy a planet.

I love it!

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Close the borders?

Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo is leading the push to close the nation's borders. I don't question his loyalty as an American but I do question his loyalty as a Coloradan, because if it makes sense to close the national borders it must make sense to close state borders.

So it's time Tom for you to start agitating to build a great big fence around Colorado and to recruit a few thousand armed men and women to stand guard. Time to stop all the boring people from Kansas, gay-lovers from Massachusetts, pot smokers from California and people who talk funny from Texas from moving here, forcing up property prices, taking 'our' jobs and generally ruining our state. While we're at it, let's slap some massive tariffs on sugar and oranges from Florida and cars from Detroit. Finally, don't forget that the rest of the US is full of terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber and whoever sent the anthrax. Got to protect Colorado from these evildoers.

Sounds crazy doesn't it? But if it doesn't make sense for Colorado to close it borders to the rest of the country, why does it make sense for the US to close its borders to the rest of the world? If it makes sense to allow poor people from rural Alabama to move to Colorado in search of a better future by working hard, why doesn't it make sense to allow poor people from Mexico to come to the US to do the same? If it makes sense to buy sugar from Florida because they can grow it much cheaper than we can in Colorado, why doesn't it make sense to buy it from Australia who can produce it even cheaper still? And are you any less dead if you're killed by a domestic terrorist rather than a foreign one?

The idea of closed borders taken to it's logical conclusion gets you North Korea. All Americans would agree that's a bad thing. But if we all agree that a big dose of economic and social isolation from the world has horrible consequences, what logic tells us that a moderate dose of the same poison is good for us?

Friday, June 16, 2006

Purple sunset

Marie and I were out for a walk Wednesday evening when we saw the most magnificent purple sunset. I kicked myself that I'd left the camera at home, but fortunately someone at the local paper managed to capture it.

Wired for sound

I just installed one of these in my living room.It's a Roku Soundbridge M500 network music player. What does it do? It lets me stream digital music from a computer or the internet to my sound system. It's got both wired Ethernet and WiFi input for connecting to the LAN and component and digital (coaxial) outputs for connecting to the sound system.

I'm using it to access my library of nearly 4,000 MP3's (digitised from my 400 or so CDs) from my server via Windows Media Connect which then gives me seamless integration with Windows Media Player. If you live in the Mac world it also integrates directly with iTunes.

I'm also using it to listen to internet radio. The current production firmware (2.3) only supports MP3 streams and most radio stations are using Windows Media Audio (WMA) but that's supported by the 2.5 beta which I've downloaded and seems to be working fine.

Considering the small screen the one thing I was worried about was the user interface, so much so that I nearly spent an extra $50 for a higher model which has a bigger and better screen. I'm glad I didn't because the user interface is well designed and quite functional. Plus there are several free applications available that let you control it from your PC, the best of which is VisualMR.

So what all that means is I'm sitting in my office loft in Steamboat, listening to the ABC radio from Australia playing through my living room sound system and when the phone rings I can turn down the volume via my PC, or I can change to a different feed or select music from my library to play.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Rainbow

There isn't a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but there is something better - the Steamboat ski area!

Friday, June 09, 2006

Airport plans

Those who have visited Steamboat Springs in the past ten years may not realise that Steamboat Springs is actually served by two airports. Since 1995 commercial services have been concentrated at the Yampa Valley Regional Airport (HDN) which is currently undergoing a major upgrade. This airport is located approximately 20 miles west of Steamboat and in the winter has direct services from many locations using jets as large as the Boeing 757.

But the first time I visited Steamboat in 1989 I flew in to the Steamboat Springs Airport (SBS) aboard a Continental Express Dash-7. The nice thing about that was the airport is only a mile or so from downtown Steamboat. Continental ended the service in 1995 when they closed their hub operation out of Denver, although I doubt it would still be going now because few aircraft have the STOL capability to operate there and the Dash-7 has been out of production for nearly 20 years.

Since then the future of SBS has been controversial. The airport continues to operate as a general aviation facility but still requires some financial support from the City. But closing it down is not straightforward. The effect of moving the general aviation traffic to HDN needs to be considered, much of the development has been done with grants from the FAA which would need to be repaid and there are contracts with existing users such as hangar owners who would need to be compensated.

That's all background to a very interesting presentation last night to the Yampa Valley Airport Commission. A team of developers is proposing to buy the airport from the city and develop a fly-in community (houses where you can park you plane in your back yard). As a member of the Commission it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the merits of the proposal (you can read more about the presentation in today's report in our the local paper) but the figure of $200 million that was mentioned as the total proposed investment caught my attention because it's indicative of the massive level of development that is likely to happen in Steamboat in the next few years.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Last snow

The ski season ended in Steamboat on April 9 but only now is the last of the snow about to disappear from the top of the mountain (click the photo to enlarge for a better view). That's good because every time I look out the window and see it I can't help counting down the days to next season (169 if you were wondering).

Monday, June 05, 2006

Leppitsch retires

One of my favourite Brisbane Lions players, Justin Leppitsch, has just announced his retirement mid-season due to a chronic back injury.

Lepptisch was a truly exciting player as a forward in the first few years of his career. I particularly remember a game against Collingwood where he baulked the player standing on the mark, ran around him and goaled from 50 metres. But it was the move to centre-half back when Leigh Matthews came to coach in 1999 that turned him into a true champion. He made the position his own playing it with a unique "loose but accountable" style and was a key element of the Lions' premierships in 2001-03. He'll be missed.

Thanks for the memories Justin.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Decked out

It's the start of summer in Steamboat and the condo we bought last September has a very nice deck, so that means it was time to get "decked out".

Here's the deck with the gas barbeque and outdoor dining set we bought today.

Let's eat!

Update: The BBQ works. Or at least the burner on the right hand side does. Since we don't have gas in our kitchen I got a BBQ with an external burner (on the right hand side) for stir frying (and a new wok). The inaugural dish? Pork and vegetable stir fry with teriyaki sauce. Better than anything you can get at our local chinese restaurants!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Taking the fast out of fast food

It's official. The Burger King in the American Airlines terminal at LAX is the world's slowest "fast" food restaurant. 25 minutes to get a burger? As John McEnroe used to say, you can't be serious! The staff were the most addled, idle, pathetic looking bunch I've ever seen. Yes it was busy, but the cashier was operating at about a third of the speed of your typical fast food register jockey.

But it isn't ultimately the fault of the staff - the big money honchos at Burger King HQ are the ones to blame for letting this happen. Their whole business model is supposed to be based on repeatable processes and constant monitoring so that you can take minimum wage labour and still produce a consistent product and level of service. It's not like this is a branch in some far flung backwater that they forgot about managing.

But ultimately it isn't even their fault. It's a symptom and result of the bigger problems with domestic aviation in the US and the final link in a long chain of the legacy airlines crapping on their customers.

Firstly, US airlines have stopped serving meals on domestic flights. That's OK if I'm paying $200 to fly from Denver to Dallas with Southwest. But when United charge me $900 for a last minute ticket on a 3.5 hour, 6 pm flight from Denver to Washington and then tell me they can't give me a meal and still make money it's obvious that these guys must struggle to put their shoes on the right feet every morning.

Secondly, the "meals" they have available for purchase are barely worthy of the name. A snack box with some crackers and cheese, crisps and a muffin? Yes, that's what I always eat for dinner. Not! To see how it can be done right, check out the Virgin Blue buy on board menu.

Thirdly, the choice of restaurants in most US airports is basically limited to fast food (Pour Le France in Concourse B at Denver International Airport being for me a very fortunate exception). That's because to generate alternative sources of revenue the airlines overcharge on rentals in their terminals. So the likes of Burger King and McDonalds, who can manage to deliver consistent service in thousands of outlets around the world including in really challenging environments, can't manage to do it in US airports.

It's a wonder the US legacy airlines don't come to their customers' homes to crap on them.

It's so nice to be home

After nearly ten weeks in Australia we finally arrived home today. Our original plan was to be away about five weeks but the project I was working on in Canberra was extended (twice).

We had a great time visiting my family in Tasmania, my wife's family and our old friends in Brisbane and my sister and nephew on the Gold Coast.

Initially I thought I'd be in Canberra only a few days but in the end it was a couple of weeks, so we were able be to catch up with some very old friends from the years in the 80's when we both lived there (and where we met in 1985).

Plus I got to go to three Brisbane Lions games of which they won two, a better return than the four games I saw last year for one win.

We still very much feel at home in Australia. But the feeling of coming home to Steamboat is on another level. I heard some people on the plane from LA to Denver this morning talking about their vacation in Hawaii and how tough it was to go home and all I could think was that there isn't a place on this planet that could be so good that I wouldn't want to come home to the 'Boat.