Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Italy welcomes Netflix

I've always been a TV series-addict, since I was a child scanning weekly TV guides to see where in local commercial channels I could find reruns of Star Trek TOS.

Therefore, I've always been subject to the tantrums of show schedule: the order of episode broadcasts, the schedule, even the fact that all episodes were ever to be broadcasted.
And I’m not speaking of 70s and 80s TV series, when there was no real continuous story to tell, and missing one episode (assuming it was not the final one) was no big issue.
Just to name an example or two, back in 2005 and 2006 two great series first seasons were broadcasted by Italian national public broadcasting company, Rai: Desperate Housewives, first season and Rome, first season.
The former had the schedule anticipated a couple of times without proper notice. Not bad, for such a thrilling season based on continuous intertwining developments of the plot.
The latter, co-produced by Rai, just stopped at the end of the first season, for the second and final one was never broadcasted.

Years have passed and meanwhile satellite Tv has changed the rules of the game, putting more power into the hands of series-addicts and trying hard to keep the pace.
Yet the real rule-breaker of the recent years, Netflix, kept out of Italy, while entering the European market.
About time! As you can easily imagine, Italian nerd TV-series addicts* have welcomed the news with much enthusiasm.
And Netflix has made her #epicwin management of the situation, starting a conversation on Twitter with Italian fans, in Italian, as in the example below.

I have still a couple of terrible doubts about the success of the operation, though: the digital divide as for bandwidth is still high, even in Northern Italy, even in towns; and will Netflix be able to win the battle of contents and rights with Mediaset and Sky?
Anyway, I cannot but rejoice: marking October in my calendar, gathering supplies, spreading garlic on my ADSL router to drive the demon of low bandwidth out of it, and preparing for my next binge-watching, hoping it will be such a masterpiece as House of Cards.
For this is how you eat the whale of show schedule: one Net-bite at a time.

*Any resemblance to real events and/or to real persons, living or dead, or cited in a tweet, is purely coincidental

Sunday, 10 May 2015

(Good) process, (bad) interface - A very Italian food experience

We Italians do love food and are surrounded by many different types of food experience.
Recently, especially in shopping malls, the fast has merged with the delicious, and you can eat restaurant-like dishes in few minutes with a self-service approach.

I partcularly like Il lupo (the wolf), where you can taste home-made pasta, grilled meat and cured meats from Tuscany.

It's quite simple. You go to the counter and place your order. They give you as many tickets as the sectors you need to visit to get what you bought: one ticket for the first courses, one for the second ones and one for bread and single courses.

The sectors are tagged by elegant signs, but there's no real indication of where one sector ends and the other begins and, above all, there's no indication of where the line to ask for your dishes starts.
And you see, we Italians do have some problems with queues. We tend to love scrums (not the agile ones, though) and disregard lines.
So it happens that you line up in front of the guy who is cooking and taking the orders, wait for a while, and then you are kindly informed that you have to start it over 5 steps on the left. Right there, where the screaming crowd of people who has just left the counter is running. So you end up a bit angry, and a lot hungry. Or, at least, I do. And the guy who is cooking gets uncomfortable and stressed.

The experience is quite wearing, yet the process does work: the guy takes the orders for the grilled meat and then passes the client on to the guy who prepares the side dishes. No room for missing things or confusion, and all runs quickly enough.

Yet the process is not properly delivered to "users", who get few clues on how they have to move in space in order to do the right thing at the right time. A better interface design, for instance a clear sign "the line for second courses starts HERE" couldn't be ignored even by us Italians, and would make things better for all the actors of the process.

A more automated process could work even better; for instance, a queue based on the numbering of tickets for each sector, supported by a board showing "now serving #13".

Anyway, no matter how hard the process can be, if you stumble on one of the restaurants Il lupo, just stop by and eat: it is worth it. And after reading this, you do know where the line starts. 
Buon appetito!

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Book vs Ebook

Yet another post on how good, old paper will beat bytes and any kind of screens, in the end - you are thinking.

Not at all: only some thoughts on what is good and what is not in reading ebooks, from a readaholic.

I read 50/60 books in a year, more or less one per week. Fiction and essays, in Italian or in English. I’m a commuter, so I read a lot while traveling by train to and from work. But I like to read also on the sofa, in bed, relaxed in the garden, flushed on the beach. Whenever I have time, and a good story to lose in.

I have been seduced by the idea of a portable electronic device since the late Nineties.
I remember wandering around SMAU in 2001 - when it was still a landmark if you were looking for innovative technology - hoping to find a device which was really portable, useful and, why not, cheap. A unicorn, and in fact I did not find it.

Oddly enough, when the wave of portable, cheap and eyes-friendly ebook readers came into the market, I resisted. A number of years. Maybe beacuse I could not give up the smell of paper, or just because I wanted to keep being a collector.
Anyway, at one point a couple of years ago I surrendered: I was given a Kindle Paperwhite and from that moment my readaholic problem has got a real boost.

I can read in any light condition and can bring with me as many books as I like, feeling free to choose the one to go on reading depending on my mood, my goals and the time I have.
I can highlight sentences and take notes even if I have no pen at hand, and I can read them on the Web.
I still buy and read paper books, but I would not come back to an age without ebooks.

Yet there is still something that makes me a bit uncomfortable with ebooks.

I still have some orientation problems: even if Kindle gives me various options to measure my progress (relative position, percentage and time left), I miss the possibility to give a look to the thickness of the book and guess how much I’ve read by comparing the gray portion to the spotless white one. Even if it is a guess, in fact, and far from the precision with which the Kindle time left function can predict when I finish reading the book.

Moreover, I tend to forget quickly the title and author of the book I’m reading, especially when I buy books out of curiosity and I have not read that author before. I think it’s a matter of visual memory: the paper cover I have to see every single time I take the book helps me keep those pieces of information in mind. Maybe some ebook readers (the Kindle itself - I have not checked, to be sincere) have a feature to display the cover of the book everytime you start reading. That would be of real help in the overall experience.

Another point about the cover of a book: with ebook readers now it is quite impossible to take a peek into what the commuter sat next to you is reading. A good point, you will say: no room for snoopers, or for embarrassment when reading Fifty shades of something (or The wealth of Nations, for what matters). No room for serendipity, too, I say. It is good to know what other people around you read, especially if it seems particularly interesting, or funny.

I am not only a readaholic, but also a compulsive book buyer, and in spite of the hectic pace of my reading activities, I still have dozens of books piled in my bookcase. The problem is, my bookcase has boundaries and that really helps limit my compulsive habit. My digital library, though, is intangible and (quite) limitless, and my intents get lost in digital space.
When I attended University, I stumbled upon two different examples of “hyperbolic book piling”. Both were professors and could allocate a really good budget for books. One had them spread all over the house, even in part of the double bed (with great disappointment of his fiancĂ©e, I suppose). The other had one room full of bookcases as tall as the roof, all piled with many layers of books. Once he invited us to listen to some pieces of classical music in that room, for the bounce on so much paper made the sound unique.
The first professor will have gained an advantage from ebooks (I hope, or he’ll be divorced), while I hope the second will still have the book-lined room to listen to classical music.

Now I’m leaving you: I have to pile up my good, old paper stuff.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

A Samsung Galaxy S4 Odissey

I’m writing this post hoping it can be of any help to all who are tempted to throw this wonderful smartphone to the wall and are desperately searching the Internet to find some good reason not to do it.

I got my Samsung Galaxy S4 (GT-I9505) as a birthday present (thank you, loving husband!) at the end of 2013. It worked really good, and I was more than happy.
Sometimes, though, it used to heat up and the battery went down consequently very quickly, especially when I used the camera or the gallery app. It happened not so frequently, so I gave it not much importance.

By the end of 2014, however, things went quickly worse.
At first, the smartphone seemed impossible to restart: it went in a kind of loop when trying, and the few times the restart worked, the smartphone shut down suddenly few seconds after the start.
Few days later, while using the camera app, a sudden shut down occured, and the smartphone would not turn on anymore. After few moments of real panic (and a fit of rage) I discovered it could be turned on again by taking the battery apart for some minutes. It seemed quite a systematic problem occuring when the camera and the gallery app were in use.
With great regret, I tried to use my smartphone without even looking at the camera and gallery app on the screen. It worked again, and a few days later I took courage and started to take photos again: it seemed to work, and sudden shutdown occured rarely.

Yet my odissey was not over at all. Systematic shutdowns started to happen “randomly”: when browsing the Internet with Chrome, when the 3G connection was coming and going, when rotating the screen.
A new kind of problem appeared: the smartphone seemed ok, no shutdowns, yet it was unable to make and receive calls and sms, and of course it was out of the network. You could notice that something was wrong because the network switch was still and could not be turned off neither on.
The battery was most of the time in my pocket, giving time to the smartphone to recover and turn on again, functioning properly.

I was desperate: I read many posts on forums and was ready to take the smartphone to Samsung’s support service, knowing that it could come back as “mad” as before; I was looking for a replacement entry-level smartphone to use while mine was under maintenance.
I even restored it to factory defaults, but it was useless. I really suspected a serious hardware problem.

But before investing in a replacement (and in the trust to customer assistance) I decided to make a last attempt: I bought a new battery on Amazon. In fact, I discovered the battery I had was one of the ill-famed batteries (serial number: BD) that caused so many problems and even swelled up.

Only, none of the problems I encountered seemed linked to a battery defect, and my battery was perfectly thin. Nonetheless, the moment I changed the battery, everything got right again, and is still going well after more than two months.

So beware: try to invest 30 EUR on a new battery (or claim for warranty service if you still can) before you decide to throw your 500-EUR smartphone away. It is worth it.