Back to BART

I’ve been driving my car over to Union City for the past dozen or so appointments with my Korean doctor in Union City

Yeah, not very green, not very cheap, either: these days it takes about four gallons of gas, roundtrip. That’s in the neighborhood of $14.00 in gas alone. Add in the $5 fee for the Bay Bridge and we’ll call it $20. BART costs exactly half that, and I get to read or write or sketch or just zone out while getting there. And getting home.

There’s honestly nothing interesting about the East Bay as seen from BART. It emerges in West Oakland, then goes back underground through Oakland, then re-emerges past that and down to Union City. Well, all the way to Fremont, actually, but south of Oakland, it’s really all the same. Sometimes literally.

Oakland Skyline The Oakland skyline only got interesting after those twin mini-towers with the pyramidal rooftops went up ten or fifteen years ago, and like I said everything south of there just looks all the same.

Well, except for the palace of a church sitting way back there up in the Oakland Hills, directly East of the Fruitvale Station. I think the Mormons put that up there: it is awfully, awfully white. Pretty, honestly, but standoffish—like of the Plastics from Mean Girls.

Now, I didn’t say that all of the East Bay is boring [try not to giggle, try not to giggle] just the view from BART. For instance, if you go to Hayward you can see quite easily where the earth jolted in 1989 and shifted the ground a few inches: look down a line of parking meters and see that it’s no longer a line. Oh, and the City of Hayward built a new City Hall building before Loma Prieta guess where? Right on the faultline. And whose fault (groan) is that? No matter, damage done: the building is as far as I know uninhabitable. Oh, and the city does have a Casper Dogs.

Then there’s South Hayward Station, right near where that fucker of a quack of an “Independent Medical Evaluator” asked me:

  • What’s 3 x 3? It took me a couple of seconds to be sure of my answer
  • Spell the word WORLD backwards. Still not sure if I spelled it D-L-R-O-W or D-L-O-R-W
  • Who’s the President of the United States? that one came to me immediately, scowl and all
  • Is the United States currently at war? I said yes, even though I knew it wasn’t really technically a war—Congress made no Declaration—but this guy couldn’t give a shit about listening to anything I had to say, short of short answers—think shyster lawyer cutting off a witness a la “have you stopped beating your spouse?”

And that, gentle readers, was the entirety of a “Concentration Test” which demonstrated that I was fit to debug a giant, complex, not-written-by-me application. Gods Below.

Union City though, is different. Wait, no it’s not. It’s suburban, beige sprawl, replete with fast food joints and unremarkable, usually single-storey office buildings and apartment complexes so unutterably bland that you’d need a map to find your own apartment until you remembered the exact set of turns and stops that gets you home. And that’s just the part of the trip where you’re already inside the complex. My friend Don (see banner pic) was the one who introduced me to the term Condolandia, but he was referring to Redwood Shores. Wait, same thing. Except that the water is East rather than West.

But Dr. Chon is there, and that makes the whole East Bay interesting enough. Well past Enough.

God of Biscuits’ vudu

I’ve written before about the vudu box I obtained through their Evangelist program. Up until a few days ago, nearly all of the content was SD (standard definition, DVD-quality stuff). To inaugurate HD content to their library, they surprised us all by pushing down the first two Bourne movies in HD without telling us, followed by a “Tah Dah!”

It was classy. And an savvy demonstration of the value-add of the internet. I’m pretty damned techie, and even I was taught a bit of something. That was the genius in it: they exploited the internet connectivity by elevating its exploitability. Does that make any sense?

The history of technology can be described, from a certain perspective, as a steady increase in complexity which is best utilized by providing simplicity to humans: to hide the complexity! And the front end, the user-facing end, keeps floating to the top, hiding more and more piled up complexity behind every increasingly abstract and illusory—and realistic! neat trick!—simplicity.

Unless you’re a User Experience expert, you’ll have absolutely no idea how difficult it is to create an illusion and maintain it without fail for a user trying to accomplish a task. And as I’ve said before, vudu is a box and a (very sexy!) remote:

  1. Switch the input source on your HDTV or home theater receiver.
  2. Search, browse, save as favorites
  3. Buy or rent a title
  4. Start watching immediately

It’s as simple as that. Even HD titles start instantly (which makes me suspect that they push down 1% or so of each HD title and store it on its HDD.

That continues to be the one sour note in the whole vudu song: it’s a P2P network, and as such, and with the amount of bandwidth that the box is consuming being opaque, it makes me worry how much traffic is going in and out of the house.

The closed nature of the box—and no, not in the same way that Macs were closed way back when—is a huge disappointment, however: I have no idea how much disk space I have left except to estimate the three HD titles that live permanently on the box. I could guess that each hour is about 1.1 GB or so, so maybe half the disk is already filled.

As I continue to use the vudu box, the more I notice how isolated the box is from the rest of the home theater system.

And now that the Apple TV provides direct movie rentals and streams music and video and photos from my iTunes Library, and connects to flickr and now acts as an AirTunes client…

Well, you can see where this is all going…

Geeks & Designers, Getting What They Want

In the list of things that are important by generalists, this is a thing that doesn’t even come close to appearing. A shampoo discussion among bald men is more important.

But, Apple released Leopard 10.5.2 today, and addressed something that many people bitched about when Leopard came out: the alpha (transparency) component in the Mac OS X menu bar (remember, Winders folks, the Mac menu bar is at the top of the screen, and is, I believe, the single biggest contributor to users’ increase in productivity vs. Windows).

And you know, I was one of the bitchers, too. It just flew in the face of that notion of productivity item, making it less prominent by blending it with the Desktop Picture (that’d be Wallpaper to you Windows folks). I didn’t like that the Desktop Picture created visual noise. Gruber didn’t like that it bollocksed up the idea of properly anti-aliasing the text of each menu title. Many others just didn’t like the change because it was, well, change. You know, the ironic ones.

Before 10.5.2, which arrived yesterday, and in the absence of third-party hacks to return the menu bar to its “beloved” 100% opacity, the menu bar looked like this:

<br/> AlphaMenuBar.png
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And now that you have the option to turn translucency on or off, setting it back to pre-Leopard looks like this:

<br/> OpaqueMenuBar.png
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Now, I never went looking for hacks, nor did I modify my Desktop Picture to have a 20px white band across the top of it: see, when you use white as the background in the area under the menu bar, it “reverts” to appearing solid white, but still doesn’t address Gruber’s issue. Apple restoring proper opacity does result in proper anti-aliasing.

So one of the first things I did was go to that System Preference Pane and turn off translucency:

<br/> SysPrefMenuBar.png
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I thought I’d feel that little rush of proper design mixed with bittersweet nostalgia. But I didn’t. I went back and thought about it, and the reason that I think—despite the apparent graphical insult and apparent UE injury—the menu bar has been diminishing its importance, instead moving slowly towards a region-of-interest-type user interface. Palettes nearby, contextual menus (which I hate, but they are there), larger displays, etc. This is completely a personal choice, and it seems like everyone would disagree with me, but I went ahead and set the menu bar back to translucent.

If all this sounds anal-retentive, well, it’s this kind of attention to detail that helps make a Mac a Mac: sustain the illusion of context and activity and try your best to get the UI out of the way of a user’s goal: the best UI is the one that never enters the user’s conscious thought, shattering the illusion.

So after wondering what the hell they were thinking, I find myself wondering why I hadn’t thought of that.