Hulu Desktop

The only thing that could possibly make Hulu better has just arrived: Hulu Desktop!  (Yes, it comes in Mac.)

I love that the only menu option in the entire application is “Fullscreen.”

On the other hand, I’m somewhat disturbed by this sentence, which appears in the license agreement exactly as written here (including the capitalization):


Unfortunately, I moonlight as an controller for nuclear-powered aircraft carrying patients on artificial respirators, so I’ll really have to limit my usage to only one or two shows per shift.

Wanted: Giant Pianist

This has to be the best job in the world:

We stopped by the giant piano the last time I visited FAO Schwarz with my girlfriend, but quite apart from being unable to play a rhapsody of any nationality on a piano of ordinary size, we refrained from trying upon seeing the line of patiently-waiting children, who surely deserve to act child-like more than adults do.

Plus, I imagine if I’d tried, there stood a reasonable chance I would also have had to leave alone.

Battery Technologies of Mrs. Brisby

I sometimes find myself doing something so geeky I have no choice but to go outdoors without a computer for at least an hour to compensate.

After I filed some Shrek-related ratings with Netflix this evening, the site recommended The Secret of NIMH.  My first thought upon seeing the title was, “Wow, someone made a documentary about nickel-metal hydride batteries?”

My second thought was, “I might want to watch that…”  (After all, I not only watched but also immensely enjoyed the documentary about Helvetica.)

Glowing Monkeys and Glowing Monkey Babies

Rob Stein reports in this morning’s Boston Globe on a recent genetic modification scientists have made to some laboratory monkeys:

In this case, the Japanese researchers added genes that caused the animals to glow green under a fluorescent light and beget offspring with the same ability in order to test a technique they hope to use to produce animals with Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and other diseases.

First, let me state clearly and unequivocally that I want a gene that makes me glow green under fluorescent lighting.  That would kill at parties.

Second, proponents of animal testing would probably prefer not to describe it in terms of, ‘we really hope we can give this monkey some Parkinson’s or something.’

Self-Returning DVDs

Netflix has (albeit inadvertently) added a nice feature: self-returning DVDs.

While I was in Phoenix with my girlfriend, we watched at our hotel a movie that happened to top my Netflix queue.  Netflix sent me the DVD before I had time to remove it.

And then it didn’t arrive.  I waited patiently for three days with no sign of it, but just when I was ready to report it “missing,” it got marked “returned” and Netflix sent the next movie on my list.

(Speaking practically, I assume the label got torn off and someone at the post office, having no idea where to send it, just sealed the envelope shut and sent it back — a wise and helpful solution.  But it’s more fun to think it’s just a self-returning DVD.)

Pizza Surprise

Let’s talk about Domino’s online ordering system, and how it’s both very flashy and fails to be in any way accurate or useful.

Full disclosure: I have an inordinately hard time ordering pizza for someone living in a major city.  The very first time I tried to have pizza delivered here, I had this conversation, verbatim:

Me:  Good afternoon; can I give you a delivery order, please?

Guy on Phone: No.

I switched to Papa John’s after that, who lets me order through their website.  This weekend, however, I placed my standard order and then got this followup phone call:

Guy on Phone: This is Ed from Papa John’s.  The location where you placed your order is closed, so I’m canceling your order and refunding your credit card.

And thus I turned to Domino’s for the day, whose online ordering system is all but legendary among my kind (i.e., the geeky and nerdy).

For the uninitiated, you place your order using a flashy interface that draws a picture of your pizza with the toppings you’ve selected (including which halves of the pizza get which toppings).  It comes with this disclaimer:

The Pizza Builder will always show a large pizza.  If you choose a different size, the topping amounts will vary.  The deliciousness, however, will not.

Then, you can follow the progress of your pizza as it’s prepared, baked, put in a box, and delivered — up to and including the name of the person performing each task.

I remain entirely underwhelmed.

First, a minor point: I can’t place a tip on the website; I have to sign a credit card slip at the door.  This delays the driver, who could be out earning his next tip if he weren’t waiting for me to write down mine.  (Papa John’s drivers hand me a box, thank me, and walk away.)  Plus, the driver doesn’t know until arriving if I’m going to tip well.  How old fashioned!

Second, and more importantly, the flashy pizza tracker reported my pizza “delivered” fully 20 minutes before it got to my door.  It even, rather tauntingly, “hopes I’m enjoying my meal.”  Nope.  I’m still hungry, Mr. Pizza Tracker, ’cause I still don’t have pizza.

The next time Papa John’s is inexplicably closed, I’ll just make a sandwich.

Living in the Technological Past?

What ever happened to that “caller ID” craze that took the nation by storm back in the 1990s?  It was this fascinating technology that would show the name of the person calling whenever the phone rang.

Sure, telemarketers abused the system, either sending false information or simply hiding their number as “Out of Area” or “Unknown Name,” but for legitimate calls — the ones we wanted to answer anyway — it worked great!

Of course, when someone in my “Contacts” list calls my cell phone, I can see the person’s name and even their picture now, but what about people who haven’t called before?  I just get their number!

Now I have to turn to Google whenever my phone rings to figure out who’s calling.  Searching for a number works well when it’s a legitimate business calling, or an illegal telemarketer, but it fails entirely for personal calls.

So I ask again: what happened to that “caller ID” craze of the 1990s?  Have we just forgotten how it’s supposed to work?

Fast Comparisons of Fast Food

I detest “fast food” (even having never seen Super Size Me) so Fast Food: Ads vs. Reality is particularly interesting to me.  The site shows side-by-side pictures of how food looks in advertisements and how the same food looks in reality.  Absolutely nobody will be surprised to learn there’s a difference.  In fact, I was rather surprised a couple pairs look so similar.  Wendy’s Chicken Club might even look a bit better in reality with its melted cheese than in the advertisement.

I’m delighted to see that the only entries that look acceptable in reality are from the two establishments I might consider actually eating (including Subway, where I now eat regularly).

(via Lifehacker)

Stop Elimination Redux

In 2004, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority closed four stops on the B Branch of the Green Line, to the approval of almost 73% of riders surveyed.  The stops remain closed today.  Now it’s time to close more.

Eliminating stops ultimately makes trips faster.  Each stop requires trains to accelerate and decelerate, and more importantly adds hold time at the platform as passengers board and disembark.  On crowded trips, the boarding process alone can take upwards of a minute at every stop even when everyone hurries.

The goal in any mass transit system must be to separate stops as widely as possible without unnecessarily inconveniencing riders.  The question is what distance is both “far enough” without being “too far.”

Underground stations on the Green Line between Government Center and Kenmore (where B trains run) are spaced 583 meters apart, on average.*  That’s about the distance diagonally across Boston Common, and about the same density of stops in Manhattan. Of course, passengers will generally walk only half that distance to get to the closest station.

Above ground, however, between Kenmore and Packard’s Corner, stops are only 306 meters apart, or about the length of a single crosstown block in Manhattan.  Imagine a New York subway train stopping every block!  Some of these need to be eliminated.

Of the eight stops in question, the shortest trips are from Boston University East to Boston University Central and from Boston University West to St. Paul Street.  The middle segment, from West to Central, is the longest.

Suppose we keep West and Central as they are, then, and eliminate the adjacent stops, beginning with St. Paul Street, barely a block away.  Babcock Street could also go, putting the three remaining stations 416 and 546 meters apart, respectively.  That’s about the underground average.

Across the turnpike, Boston University East is also a perfect candidate for removal based on distance, and I support that, but it’s also benefited immensely from the costly beautification work done there just recently, so I don’t have high hopes for its elimination.

The only valid counterargument I’ve heard to eliminating any of these stops is that the individual platforms are not large enough to support the required number of passengers.  In other words, the reason St. Paul Street and Boston University West are practically touching is so they can act in combination as a larger platform.

Anecdotally, I’ve never seen such a problem.  The crowds on these platforms are light, even on heavy rush hour trips that are far behind schedule.  During the Boston University Commencement, which surely generates the heaviest travel in the area, crowds would overhwlem any platform, which is why we always see MBTA staff supervising operations (and, at least last year, manually turning the entire platform into a fare-controlled area).

However, if there’s real evidence against these platforms’ adequacy, there are several solutions.  First, they can easily be lenghtened.  Even if four-car trains will never arrive (as seems likely, since we have yet to see even three-car trains in regular service), a four-car platform is perfectly usable.  Second, and admittedly costlier, sacrificing a few parking spaces would allow ample room to widen the platforms into the street — a small price, even in Boston.

Most importantly, crowds at every platform will diminish as service speeds up.  Fewer people can gather during a five-minute window between trains than can in a window that’s 15 minutes long.

We need to eliminate these stops.  Let’s skip over them for six months, and if crowds on any platform truly become unmanageable, we can put them back in just as easily as they came out.  If, instead, there’s no harm and service gets faster, at least 73% of riders will be made happier.

*I performed all measurements in Google Earth using the “ruler” tool.  For underground stations, I used Google’s placement of the station icon to estimate the platform’s position.

The Real Netflix Prize

Back in 2006, Netflix offered to pay $1,000,000 to anyone who can improve its movie recommendations by 10%.  A reliable supply of recommendations will keep a customer who’s otherwise run out of movies to watch from canceling his account.

For comparison, let’s analyze the technique Netflix is currently using to pick movies for me.  I’ve rated some genres in the past (comedy: 5 stars, horror: no stars), and this afternoon it crunched some numbers and recommended this new genre:

Romantic British Dramas
Your taste preferences created this row.

• British
• Dramas
• Romantic

Just imagine what a 10% improvement will do!