The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

June 28, 2011

The Freedom of Too Much Choice

Filed under: Food — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 2:26 am

For some time now, I’ve been trying to seriously cut back on drinking soda.  That’s not to say that I’m the type of person who is constantly guzzling down the stuff or anything like that, but  even though compared to some people I really don’t drink a whole lot of soda, I still get the sneaking suspicion that I’m probably drinking more of it than I should.  Even the fact that I have become, somewhat by necessity, a bit of a soda snob doesn’t seem to do much about this.  Even the slightest amount of caffeine in soda will keep me up half the night (and most of the time it ends up being the half of the night that my weird sleep schedule doesn’t keep me up) and when you throw sugar into the mix, it means that I’m up half the night AND climbing up the walls at the same time.  That means when I do drink soda, I need to stay away from the caffeinated stuff as much as possible, and should probably try to avoid the sugary stuff too.  This can result in very limited choices sometimes. 

Take the example above, from the Costco food court.  Back when they had Coke products in the soda machines, they actually had a reasonable (not great, but reasonable) selection of choices in the soda machines, so I could usually manage to find something to drink here.  A couple of years ago, following a pricing dispute with Coca-Cola that ultimately resulted in the temporary removal of all Coke products from the warehouses for about a month, Costco ultimately replaced the Coca-Cola products with Pepsi products.  And for some unknown reason, they decided that even though they have sixteen different spigots (or in some larger warehouses, 24) to work with in their soda fountains, they were only going to offer five options, three of which are caffeinated.  I’m sure you don’t have to go back too far to get back to a time when people would have been happy to have five choices to work with (presumably this was back in the days when you had choices of Coke, Sprite and maybe Dr Pepper if you were lucky) but especially given the fact that no fewer than twelve of the dispenser heads are being taken up by only three drinks (none of which I can really drink if I’d like to sleep anytime in the next eighteen hours) it just seems a bit ridiculous, and even at the now-famous $1.50 price for a Costco hot dog, makes the whole deal seem like a bit of a rip off really.  I’m sure someone could cite obscure economic reasons for doing it this way, but based on a bit of Internet research on prices for Pepsi bag-in-box products, they all pretty much cost the same price, which makes the whole thing seem more ridiculous. 

I suppose that to some extent, the annoyance that results from having the option of only five soda flavors  (only two of which I can drink without going completely bonkers) stems from the fact that society as a whole seems to have gotten used to having all sorts of options for pretty much everything these days.  My TV has some 200 channels on it (about four of which I watch on a regular basis,) and just in case I can’t find something to watch on there I’ve got a TiVo that can hold another 142 hours of recorded HDTV programming on it.  And if it weren’t for the fact that I might be the last person on Earth who doesn’t have a Netflix account I could find another half-zillion or so options on there.  If I want to listen to music I can just pull up Zune and listen to pretty much anything I can possibly think of within seconds.  I can go to Amazon and get any of their hundreds of thousands of products delivered to my door within a couple of days.  And yet if I want a cheap hotdog, it means I’m stuck with a choice between root beer or diet lemonade.  I suppose I could just go to Sam’s Club where the cheap hotdogs still come with a decent selection of drink choices, but that’s beside the point.

But thanks to the miracles of modern technology, there’s hope for us soda snobs, and it comes in the form of the Coca Cola Freestyle.  Although these machines are still experimental to at least some extent, they have begun popping up in a number of the local Taco Time restaurants (and it looks like the Blissberri Frozen Yogurt shop that’s going to be opening at Bellevue Square at some point in the near future is going to have one of these too,) replacing the more conventional soda fountains with the latest in beverage-dispensing technology.  Thanks largely to the use of Microdispensing technology that separates flavorings from sweeteners and allows for flavorings to be concentrated into much smaller spaces, the Coca Cola Freestyle machine can handle up to 125 different drink flavors, which are selected through a touchscreen interface.  Oh, and the ice dispenser built into the machine has the good kind of crunchy ice too.

 

Granted, most of the flavors being offered are just variations on the base Coca Cola flavors, but when was the last time you saw Caffeine Free Diet Cherry Coke in your local soda fountain?  Come to think of it, did the stuff even exist before the Coca-Cola Freestyle?

And while having 125 different drink choices available sounds like a soda enthusiast’s dream, it does pose an interesting dilemma:  You find yourself in front of the machine with a soda cup in hand, and start tapping at some of the options on the screen.  Just about everything on the main menu goes to a screen like you see above.  Sure, you might have decided after much deliberation that you’re in the mood for a Sprite, but did you want Sprite, Cherry Sprite, Orange Sprite, Peach Sprite, Strawberry Sprite, Raspberry Sprite, Grape Sprite or Vanilla Sprite?  And are you sure you didn’t really want Sprite Zero?  Or Fanta?  Or Fanta Zero?  Or something completely different in the first place?  Never in the course of human history has something as simple as a soda machine come with such a great risk of Analysis Paralysis.  And if you’ve got someone who already spent ten minutes staring at the menu board trying to figure out what to have for lunch, this seems  like the kind of thing that could put them completely over the edge.

 Granted, this is still new technology, and as cool as the whole thing sounds, we still don’t have any idea if it’s actually going to catch on with a wide audience.  But given the nature of the machine, it seems like steps could be taken to remedy this type of situation.  Perhaps some sort of recommendation UI could be added to the machine where a user could enter in some preferences (for example, they could say they want something that’s diet, non-caffeinated and in one of several flavors the user chooses) and suggestions could be made based on these choices.  Without the ability to store individual user preferences in any meaningful form it might prove an interesting challenge to figure out the best way to go about this, but something like a “most popular” list or a “Recommended” list wouldn’t be too hard to implement.  Regardless of what future direction Coca-Cola may decided to take with these machines, it’s still an interesting concept, and one I’d definitely like to see catch on, even if it does come with some pitfalls for someone as indecisive as I’ve been known to be on occasion.

And it’s certainly a whole heck of a lot better than having sixteen spigots on a soda fountain and only two viable options.  Soda, soda everywhere, and not a drop to drink…

June 20, 2011

Photo Dump: Spring-Loaded Edition

Filed under: Photo Dump, Random Stuff — Brian Lutz @ 1:33 am

Don't like the weather? Wait a few seconds!

Officially, the end of Spring and the beginning of Summer is now just a couple of days away.  And given some of the weather we’ve had around here lately, I don’t think there are going to be a lot of people out there who will be sad to see it go.  Over the past several months, a number of weather-related records have been broken, mostly in the “Cold” and “Rainy” departments, and although the pattern that kept us cold and rainy for much of the Spring still seems to be in effect, the official start of Summer is now just a couple of days away (the “unofficial” start of Summer on July 5th is, of course, still a couple of weeks away.)  Although I don’t have a whole lot of stuff planned until late August and September, it should be an eventful Summer, with one of the expected highlights being the birth of my first niece in late August.  But with Summer still ahead, it’s time to do a little bit of quick Spring cleaning on the Blog, and to put up a photo dump post featuring some of the random stuff that’s accumulated on my phone’s camera over the past couple of months.  You’ll find these after the jump.

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June 17, 2011

Figuring Out How the Heck to Get There is Half the Fun, Right?

Filed under: travel — Brian Lutz @ 2:10 am

Although I’m pretty sure that I’m not actually supposed to like being single (I guess it depends who you ask really,) I do have to admit that it has its advantages.    For example, not having any kids to worry about at this point means that if I’m planning a vacation I don’t have to worry about their schedules, which in turn means I can schedule things at times when the kids are all supposed to be in school, thus (hopefully) avoiding some of the crowds of feral children that might otherwise be roaming assorted popular tourist destinations during the Summer and Spring Break.  Which does absolutely nothing to explain why I happen to be currently in the process of planning a trip to Disneyland right smack in the middle of Labor Day weekend, but in theory that’s how it’s supposed to work.  In realty, most of the time I’ve also been restricted by available vacation time (or the lack thereof in a lot of the contracts I’ve worked) and financial constraints, but even under those constraints, I find that it’s relatively rare for me to take a vacation during the Summer, at least not the part of summer generally considered to be Summer Vacation.

So, along these lines, I find myself with not one, but two different trips coming up in September, and even though that’s still several months away, it seems that I’ve already got planning to do.  The first trip will be, as noted above, Labor Day weekend (give or take a day) spent down at Disneyland with some friends.  The “Labor Day” part of that should ensure that the place should be niiiice and crowded those days so we get to do fun things like wait four hours in line for the teacups or spend an hour trying to figure out how the heck we’re supposed to get past the parade.  Well OK, I don’t think it’ll actually be quite that bad, but nobody remembers the trips where everything goes according to plan, right?  Anyway, my friends have been booking their flights down for the trip, but I’ve been putting this off for some inexplicable reason, planning to purchase the flights after my most recent payday.  As of Tuesday, all seemed to be well, with the flights both ways priced at $109, so I planned to book yesterday evening.  This, of course, must have set off the airlines’ secret “jack up the price” alert, and by the time I was ready to actually book, the flights were now coming up as $172 apiece, which isn’t necessarily a deal breaker (especially since I don’t have to worry about paying for a hotel on this trip,) but was certainly enough to make me start hastily searching for a plan B.  I did find one reasonable looking alternative on another airline at a more reasonable price and was about to book it before noticing a little AM/PM mix-up in the schedules that would have really made a mess of things if I booked it.  I do a pretty good job of messing things up on my own, I don’t need the airlines’ help to get myself hopelessly lost in a strange land, I am quite capable of doing that on my own. 

Ultimately, it took wading through half a dozen websites looking for flights that weren’t either ruinously expensive or thoroughly inconvenient, and finding out that there really weren’t any better options than just sticking with the flights I planned to book in the first place, so in the end, those were the ones I went with.  They ended up costing more than I would have liked them to, but I guess I just need to remind myself I don’t need to pay for a hotel this time around.  That (mostly) takes care of trip #1, so now I need to figure out trip #2, which has a lot more planning to do.  Shockingly, I’m booked for yet another cruise later in September (I figure I’ll get it out of my system eventually, right?) this one being a five-day trip from Vancouver to Los Angeles with stops in Victoria and San Francisco along the way.  That, of course, means having to figure out getting up to Vancouver (which will probably end up being by train), getting a hotel overnight up there (which doesn’t seem to be cheap,) then figuring out if I’m going to try to sneak in a couple more days in LA when I arrive down there.  Oh, and I have to find a flight back up too, although that shouldn’t be too tough to figure out.  And then just around the time when I’m done figuring all that out and getting that out of the way, I suspect I’m going to have a weekend roadtrip out to Eastern Washington sometime not long after that, but I suspect I’ll just be along for the ride on that one so it shouldn’t be anything that’ll get me into too much trouble.

I bet if I went back and dug through some of my old stuff, somewhere along the line I’d find a point where I said something about wishing I had the opportunity to get out and travel a bit more.  I’m just not quite sure that I had intended it to all happen at once.  So if sometime roughly three months from now if you see some Blog post about being lost in the middle of Nowhere with all my luggage having somehow found its way to some random closet in New Jersey, at least you won’t be too surprised.  After all, nobody remembers the trips where everything goes according to plan, right?

 

June 10, 2011

Not Quite Down With the Sickness

Filed under: Random Stuff, Technology — Brian Lutz @ 12:34 am

In the 33 years that I have now spent wandering around (relatively small portions of) this planet (it used to be 32.  Long story on that one,) I can’t think of any time when I would have ever really wanted to be sick for any reason.  Sure, there were a few times back in my days as a straight-C student in high school when I certainly wouldn’t have complained about a convenient excuse or two to get out of a math test (let’s just say that me and the Quadratic Formula never really got along back in those days,) but for the most part, getting sick ends up being a lot more trouble than it’s worth.   At least back in the days when you were in school, getting sick came with the possibility of getting a day off, but at least in the house I grew up in, getting kinda’ sick just wouldn’t cut it.  Most of the time, the deciding factor between school or no school seemed to be whether or not you were sick enough to throw up, an activity that sits somewhere on the list of my favorite things between a visit to the Department of Licensing office and getting shots (surprisingly, I think I might rank dental fillings somewhere very slightly above those two, but that’s a different story.)  Needless to say, I try not to make a habit of getting sick if I can help it, and thankfully it happens very rarely, mostly when I get some wild idea about doing comprehensive reviews of boxes of candy or engage in some other similar ill-advised activity of some sort. 

On the other hand, it seems that regardless of one’s hand-washing habits or how many germ-riddled children you can manage to stay away from, the occasional cold seems inevitable.  If there was a definition for “kinda’ sick,” you’d probably look it up in the dictionary and find a cold there.  Unless you get a really bad cold, most of the time it ends up being the kind of thing that generally makes you feel crummy, but never seems to get bad enough that you’d ever consider yourself to be truly sick.  Sure, you’re going to be up half the night coughing and generally end up feeling like crud as a result of the stuff, but it never seems to get quite bad enough to prevent you from being able to do your job.  In the end, mostly it just annoys the heck out of you, but never reaches the point of impairing your ability to function at least somewhat normally.  This was especially true back during the time I was working as a contractor, when sick time was basically nonexistent, and vacation time only slightly less so.  This meant that taking a sick day could easily cost upwards of a couple hundred dollars in lost wages, and meant that it wasn’t too uncommon to see people who really should have just stayed home coming into work anyway (and I don’t exempt myself from that statement either.)  Now that I think about it, I’m actually kind of surprised that I never saw anyone in the contractor storage areas I was located in at Microsoft dragging along an IV stand.

Now that I’m working in a full-time role that comes with actual benefits, I do have actual sick time that I could use if it becomes necessary.  At the same time, I also have the ability to work from home fairly easily should the need arise, which is something that I never had during my time as a contractor (if I understand correctly, getting a contractor remote access at Microsoft requires general manager approval, which on the various teams I worked on during my time there was usually somewhere between six and seven levels above me.)  On one hand, this means that I do have the option if it becomes necessary to do so.  At the same time, it also makes it a lot harder to just take a sick day when you end up in this “kind of sick” state as described above (which, incidentally, is where I’ve spent the past couple of days with a cold, thus prompting this post) because even though you don’t want to go into the office and be the friendly neighborhood Typhoid Mary (or Typhoid Marty as the case may be,) at the same time there’s nothing keeping you from just remoting in and working from home.  Basically, it’s the same thing I would have done back in my contractor days, minus the dragging myself to the office for lack of alternatives. 

Being able to work from home is one of those things that sounds nice when you’re slogging through thirty-seven miles of backed-up I-5 or I-405 traffic every day to the office and back, but it does lose a bit of its appeal when your daily commute is a two-block walk down Northeast 8th Street, working from home loses a bit of its appeal.  To be honest, I think I work better in the office than I would at home, mostly because I’ve really gotten used to working on the dual monitor setup I have at my desk at work, and going back to a single monitor on my work laptop or on my desktop system just seems really small in comparison.  Much has been said over the years about the productivity gains that can be had from moving to a multi-monitor setup, but getting a second monitor for my home system is one of those things that’s been on my to-do list for years now, but I just can’t seem to ever get around to actually doing.  The irony of this is that it really wasn’t all that long ago that having a screen as big as the current 20″ Dell monitor that I’ve had on my desk for somewhere around eight years now would have been considered unimaginably huge, especially back in the days when I got my first computer with its (at the time standard) 14″ CRT monitor.  These days I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anything much smaller than a 17″ screen for everyday desktop use, and you can pretty easily find 24″ widescreen monitors for under $200 these days.  Even the once gigantic 20-inch monitor I’ve got here seems to be on the small side of things these days judging from some of the comments I’ve seen.  At the same time there seems to be an upper limit where bigger monitors actually hinder productivity, but it seems to be generally agreed that more monitors are better for productivity than bigger monitors. 

Anyway, with any luck this cold will go away soon so I can hopefully go back to the office without having to shout “unclean!” at anyone passing by my cube.  That way I can just go back to shouting their bugs at them, but that’s a different story for a different post One which, history seems to indicate, I’ll probably never get around to writing.  And that’s probably a good thing.

June 6, 2011

In Only 14 Years, This Blog Will Be Old Enough to Vote.

Filed under: Site Stuff — Brian Lutz @ 2:30 am

To be perfectly honest, when I started this blog back in 2007, I figured it would put up, maintain for a while, get bored of it and move on, presumably to start up yet another Blog at some point in the indeterminate future.  Today marks the four year anniversary of this site, and although as of late I have slowed down somewhat in terms of the number of posts I put up, I’ve managed to stick with it for this long, and even though daily traffic has been down over the past few months, I don’t have any plans to quit anytine soon.  I think I’ve already dismissed any ill-conceived notions I might have had at some point of ever being able to make money by blogging  (at least on this Blog, I’ve got some ideas I’d like to try at some point that would most likely require a different format than the one I’ve got here) but to a large extent, I’m writing this as much for myself as I am for any audience out there that might be reading this.  I find it can be quite useful to be able to go back and reread old posts, both for reference on things and to just see what I was doing at any one particular point in time.  Fortunately, for the most part the stuff on here is at least gramatically correct enough that I don’t cringe whenever I try to read it (unlike certain old websites that I wrote back in my young and/or foolish days,) and even if I do find typos at least I can usually manage to make a quick sneaky edit (but you didn’t hear that from me, OK?)

Anyway, once again I’d like to thank everyone here for continuing to read this stuff (assuming that there are people out there who don’t flee in panic after the first click, I think I might have a few of those still) and although these days I can never seem to tell what direction the stuff on this site is going to end up going (even as I’m writing it sometimes) I hope that at least someone finds this stuff interesting.  Even if that one person happens to be a distant relative of mine reading this fifty years from now.  On the off chance that I’ve still got this thing going at that point, at least.  As usual, I’m putting up the very nearly semiannual statistical overview , which is found below.

  • Total Posts(all time, including this one):  505
  • Total Comments (all time):  745
  • Total  Page Views (all time):  190,305
  • Total Page Views since 1/1/2011:  21,513
  • Average Visitors Per Day (so far this year):  138

Top 10 Most Read Posts (since 1/1/2011):

Sampling the Whitman’s Sampler: A Guide to America’s Favorite Box of Enigmatic Chocolates   2,285
Retail Wasteland – A Tour of the Totem Lake Mall   2,120
The Redmond Costco Moves Forward (Updated 9/9/09)   738
Classical Gas – Abandoned Route 66 Gas Stations   683
Malls of the Seattle Area: A Tour of the Factoria Mall   645
A Brief Tour of the Bellevue Galleria, Bungie’s Future Home   603
A Tour of Crossroads Bellevue – Part 1: The Mall   583
My Very Nearly Award-Winning Chili Recipe, and Other Deep Dark Secrets   418
Malls of the Seattle Area: A Tour of The Everett Mall   397
Off the Beaten Path: The World’s First KFC in Murray Utah   373

Top 10 Most Read Posts (All Time):

Retail Wasteland – A Tour of the Totem Lake Mall   23,443
Classical Gas – Abandoned Route 66 Gas Stations   8,957
Malls of the Seattle Area: A Tour of the Factoria Mall   8,716
Sampling the Whitman’s Sampler: A Guide to America’s Favorite Box of Enigmatic Chocolates   7,819
A Tour of Crossroads Bellevue – Part 1: The Mall   6,007
The Redmond Costco Moves Forward (Updated 9/9/09)   5,463
My Very Nearly Award-Winning Chili Recipe, and Other Deep Dark Secrets   4,512
Malls of the Seattle Area: A Tour of The Everett Mall   4,011
A Brief Tour of the Bellevue Galleria, Bungie’s Future Home   2,782
The Beginning and the End of the Old Bellevue Safeway   2,636

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