Friday, October 31, 2008

Boo! (and sometimes Hoo.)

Once again, Halloween was one of those times when it became clear life is so much better with children. The excitement of seeing their friends, getting dressed up and eating candy seem to combine and yield pure joy. This year, Sam successfully walked up to the doors of neighborhood homes, knocked and gave the customary greeting. He got more than enough loot to fill his candy strip. William made it a few more houses than last year and then came home for bedtime. There were two minor fatigue-induced meltdowns but nothing that a little redirection couldn't resolve.

This year I got to pick the costumes again although I suspect this is short lived and Sam will probably have a strong idea of what he wants to be next year. Of all my ideas that met my criteria of being friendly, funny and cute, he chose to be a fireman. Poor Will was subjected to being his Dalmatian pal. One day I'm afraid he'll suffer an inferiority complex but for now, he was happy to go, "Unh, unh" when I asked him what noise a dog makes.

As promised last year, we laughed in the face of a bad economy and gave out full sized candy bars to all the kids who came to our door. A bit much some might think but Bob and I remember thinking a whole candy bar was really something special. Now that we're the grownups, we were glad to share that awe with all our little friends.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Note from School

Sam has been doing really well at his new preschool. Today, he brought home this note for me:

"Papa play time" is what we do when Deanna is making dinner and I get them out of her way for a while. You should see him on the iPod touch- it's quite remarkable how well he can navigate his way around. Obviously, the teacher wrote what he was saying for this note, but there's no doubt the words were his own. I'm looking forward to the Father's Breakfast!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Three Things You Can Do on an iPod touch (that you can't do on your computer)

Ever since I've gotten my 2nd Generation iPod touch, I've felt it's more comparable to a laptop computer than an mp3 player. In fact, there are things the device can do that most computers cannot. Here are three that come to mind:
  1. Play Accelerometer-based Games

    One of the coolest things I saw in iPhone ads before getting the iPod touch was the Labyrinth game. I remember playing the physical version of this game as a kid growing up- thinking what an interesting challenge it was to get the ball all the way around the maze without falling in one of the holes. I don't think I ever successfully navigated the course either because I was too young and lacked the coordination to play the game, or because the game was broke and the controls didn't work quite right.

    This game is pure genius because it is such an innovative use of the accelerometer. When you first see than an iPod touch has the ability to change the orientation of the screen automatically depending on how it is held, you assume that it has a little switch in it that advises whether the device is upright or on its side. But the sensitivity of the circuitry that makes this determination is much more sensitive than you'd think it would be which allows games like this one and many more.

    The Lite version of Labyrinth with enough levels to get you hooked is free. Click on the image below to visit the Labyrinth Lite site within the iTunes App Store:

  2. Triangulate Your Position via WiFi

    Google Maps come pre-installed on the iPod touch and it is wonderfully customized for the device. Although it is easy enough for your web browser to remember the location of your home and other frequently used locations once you've searched for directions from that starting point, the iPod touch can determine your location automatically. Note that the iPod touch does not have GPS. Rather, it determines location using WiFi triangulation (read more about how this is done here.)

    This is handy for Google maps for sure, but other applications can make use of this feature as well. One that I've found particularly handy is called Around Me (free from the iTunes App Store). Just fire up the app and ask it which coffee shops, bars, restuarants, gas stations, etc are "around me" and it quickly produces the list (see below). I found this to be quite handy when we were at the Copley Square Mall a few weekends ago and wanted to find all of the restuarants near us. Though we could have search the mall directory, Around Me found restaurants just outside the mall that we knew existed but we didn't immediately recall were nearby. Well done!

  3. Enjoy Instant On/Instant Off Capabilities

    Leaving your desktop or laptop on all the time wastes power. However, many of us leave our computers powered on because we don't want to wait for them to start up in order to check something quickly. "Stand By" and "Sleep" functionality is notoriously flaky in my experience and even when it works flawlessly it isn't truly instantaneous.

    The iPod touch turns on and off *immediately*. There is no lag whatsoever which makes it a really quick and easy way to check things like E-mail, Facebook, and Twitter. It is also very tiny and doesn't clutter the area up visually so it's fine to keep it out on the kitchen counter or in your pocket.
I don't consider the iPod touch a replacement for a laptop. In fact, the first thing you need to do when you open up your iPod touch is sync it with iTunes on a computer. That being the case, I think of it as a good way to supplement your existing computer, reducing the time you spend sitting down in front front of a keyboard and screen.

I've had the device for about a month now, and although it has bouts of flakiness (which I'll go into further in a future entry) I continue to be impressed with the device and re-iterate my "buy" rating:

Did you know you can make phone calls on an iPod touch?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Announcing The Wellesley Wine Press: All Wine, All The Time

It has been a busy couple of days here at Casa Dwyer. First, the epic review of the Mandarin Oriental below and now the announcement of Casa Dwyer's first spin-off: The Wellesley Wine Press!

I started the Wellesley Wine Press for a few reasons. First, I have a lot of information about wine running around in my head and increasingly it felt unbalanced to include all of that content on Casa Dwyer. Second, I wanted to try my hand at launching a web site and making a tiny bit of money on small ads and product links. I don't have grand visions for making a fortune- my goal is to pay for the $8 domain registration within the first year. How many busineses can you start for less than $10? (or free even if you didn't want to spring for the URL?) I'll let you know how it goes 1 year from today. Finally, I'm really excited about creating a site to discuss wine primarily from the consumer's perspective. There's a sea of information on the Internet about wine. Most of it is either wine reviews (professional or amateur), or retailers giving you their take on wine. I really want to bring a value-minded consumer's view to the wine world, triangulating professional reviews, typical wine drinker preferences and sensibilities, and product availability. I'll also throw in some wine shop and wine product reviews. I anticipate having a mild slant towards Massachusetts, but I hope the information is interesting reading for anyone mildly interested in wine or my views on consumerism.

It is a little ironic that there be a site dedicated to buying wine in Wellesley since the town doesn't allow wine stores. Although you *can* buy a bottle of wine at a restaurant, no wine can be sold in grocery stores and there are no liquor stores, period. Some nearby towns do allow wine sales and I'll be featuring the stores I have a good experience with for the benefit of others who might be interested.

I do hope you enjoy the new content on The Wellesley Wine Press. I'd love to hear what you think.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Mandarin Oriental Boston Hotel Review

Summary: A modern, sophisticated, and tranquil urban oasis in the heart of Back Bay. Perfectly situated for a metropolitan getaway for shopping, dining, and more.

  • Elegant and relaxing property
  • Gracious residential-feel rooms
  • Connected to world class shopping and dining
  • Glitchy service
  • Contentious billing
  • Unempowered staff

Since this was going to be our first overnight away since Will was born (almost a year and a half ago) we really wanted to stay someplace special. The Four Seasons Boston was sold out, and when I learned that the Mandarin Oriental would be opening just days before the Columbus Day weekend we'd targeted for our getaway, I was enthusiastic about staying there. I was a little concerned that the hotel might not open on time, and also concerned that there might be some start-up glitches. However, the hotel did indeed open up on time and, as anticipated, there were a number of small glitches.

The Mandarin Oriental website is "okay". So-so I'd say. It doesn't really give you a feel for the personality of the individual properties the way some other hotel web sites do, and some specific information we were looking for wasn't on the web site- more on that later.

Before I go much further, I want to acknowledge that my expectations were very high going into this. The Mandarin Oriental prices and luxury positioning put it near the top of the hotel industry. At this high level I think it is reasonable for guests to have high expectations. Staying at a hotel like this is, for us, a once-every-few-years kind of splurge and by nature I'm a very value-minded consumer. I'm not cheap- I just expect services and products to deliver at the level they're priced at.

After reviewing the room options on their web site, I noticed a "Seasonal Choices" package, which includes the following:
  • Daily American breakfast for one or two persons
  • Single or double occupancy at the same rate
  • Late check out until 6pm (subject to availability)
  • Complimentary extra bed for a child under 12 sharing the same room
I thought this was a pretty good option, since the late check-out effectively stretched our stay to be more like 2 days than 1 night. Breakfast being included didn't hurt either, but I wanted to get more clarity on what "subject to availability" meant (with respect to the late checkout) so I called to make my reservation instead of booking online.

The reservations agent was helpful enough, and explained that she couldn't guarantee a late checkout, but they'd try their best. Since it didn't cost much more for the late checkout, I booked the "Seasonal Choice" package at a room rate of $699. I don't think I've paid more than $400 a night for a hotel in the past (and even $400 is a boatload of money for a night in a hotel in my view) so this was definitely a splurge for us.

I called back a few weeks later to ask about the spa services since they weren't posted on their web site. The agent told me that since the hotel was so new they hadn't finalized the spa menu and that he'd E-mail it to me when it became available. I had my E-mail address attached to the reservation and I thought it would be pretty impressive if he actually followed through on this request- but he didn't. I never heard back regarding the spa services, but the weekend before our visit, we checked back on their web site and found that the spa menu was posted.

Finally, on the day of our arrival I called to ask what the parking options were (they're strangely not described on the web site.) They advised that it was valet only for $48 overnight. Okay, no problem. I thought this would be a good opportunity to confirm our arrival time so they could perhaps have our room ready early and/or confirm late checkout. Although the agent asked for my name and confirmed I had a reservation, the conversation stopped there. A minor missed opportunity to impress if you ask me.


Arriving at a city hotel always seems to be a stressful situation. You've got traffic swirling around, you're in a busy downtown area, and you don't know where to go. However, the staff outside the Mandarin Oriental made us feel welcome and comfortable from the moment we stopped the car curbside.

The doorman ("Jean") immediately opened our car doors, and the bellman took our luggage out of the trunk, tagged it and promised to deliver it safely to our room. Our car was taken by a professionally dressed valet, and the doorman escorted us into the hotel and introduced us to the desk clerk. It was a very professional, top-notch greeting. Exactly what I'd expect at a hotel of this stature. Well done.

The desk agent was quite formal and upright in the manner in which he addressed us. Probably needlessly so. This is where we get into a style preference and the matter of aligning your personality with the hotel you're staying at. For me, I like intuitive service, but I dislike pretentious service. In my view, the service at the front desk, and at the hotel in general, tended more towards pretentious service than intuitive service. Upon check-in for example, we had about a 30 second discussion about whether "The Boston Globe" was the newspaper we wanted delivered the next morning. He could have said "Is The Globe OK?" but he instead launched into a rather long-winded statement about how they have a number of newspapers they could offer me from all over the world, and the default selection is the Boston Globe, but that could be changed and would I have a preference? Um- the Globe is fine, thanks. An example of intuitive service would have been to look at my address on file and say, "Mr. Dwyer I see you're from the area; I assume the Globe will be alright for your Sunday paper?"

Other than being a little stiff with his word choice, he was quite a friendly and eager gentleman. He did confirm when asked that late check-out was a "go" (score!), that our room was *not* yet available (hey, that's okay we were early) and offered to take our mobile number and call us when our room was ready. He then offered us a quick tour of the hotel which was much appreciated and pointed us to the bar.

We proceeded to have a nice lunch at the hotel bar along with some very expensive but very good drinks. Most of the hotel dining staff seems to have come from area restaurants and bars, rather than from competing high end hotels. Right when we finished lunch, my cell phone rang and we proceeded back to the front desk where we received our room keys and an offer of some "welcome green tea." Nice touch!

The Room:

The room was very nice. Very spacious and thoughtfully laid out. It's one thing to have a room be "big" but I thought that in additional to being nicely sized, they did a good job of giving you space where it is helpful. in the walk-in closet so you can easily put your stuff away and not feel like it is in your way during your stay:

The overall style of the room was elegantly minimalist, and moderately Asian influenced. I felt very comfortable there, I have to say. The bed was probably the most comfortable hotel bed I've ever slept in.

The bathroom was pretty darn awesome. Really spacious and nicely appointed. The shower was a little quirky. The water didn't get hot enough although the sink was plenty hot, which indicates that the regulator was improperly set upon installation. There was an overhead shower head (in addition to the regular shower head on the shower wall) that was also a nice idea, yet quirky as well. Upon arrival, the overhead shower had low pressure. When we were leaving our room, we happened upon a gentleman from hotel engineering who was fixing the low pressure situation. We mentioned that the water wasn't as hot as it should be and he said he'd take a look at both issues. Though the low pressure was fixed, the low temperature was not. This was disappointing because I specifically asked him if it would be best if I called the front desk to advise them of the low temperature- he said it would be fine- he would take care of it.

There was even a cut orchid in a vase in the bathroom. A very nice touch since no other hotel room we've ever stayed in had fresh flowers.

The view out the window was quite nice- a sweeping view of Back Bay, with Boylston Street below:

The Property:

Everywhere you went in the property was nicely detailed and decorated to a high level. One of the best features of the hotel is that it is connected not only to the new tenants in the same building (L'Espalier restaurant where we had dinner Saturday night- really nice, and retailers like Frette and Gucci) but also the Prudential Center, and Copley Place malls. I can see this being a major advantage during the holiday shopping season and throughout blustery Boston winters.

The hotel seemed very thoughtfully designed towards tranquility. For example, have a listen to this video I shot of the pleasant "ding" the elevators make:

Even the room keys made a nice sound when inserted successfully:

One major disappointment was that the spa hadn't opened yet. We were a little surprised to hear this, especially since we called prior to arriving and the agent indicated not only that the spa would be open, but that he'd send us pricing. If the spa wasn't going to open when the hotel opened, I think they should have let us know that.

The hotel favored style over functionality on occasion. For example, the salt and pepper shakers were these little glass orbs (pictured below.) Cool looking and everything, but I could hardly get any salt and pepper out of them even when I shook them like mad!


Here's where it gets tricky. Now, I don't want to sound like a whining, complaining guest; but at this price point you've got to expect good service.

First, some positive words. There were many kind and gracious members of the hotel staff we interacted with during our stay. Overall- we had a *fabulous* time. Truly, I enjoyed myself very much and I had a great weekend I'll never forget.

Remember the Boston Globe the desk agent asked me about? It was wonderfully delivered and hung outside our door Sunday morning:

Now, for some not so good news regarding service... Our room was only made up once-- sometime between Saturday afternoon and Saturday early evening. When we were checking in, the bellman proudly pointed out that the room had a "make-up room" button on the thermostat unit that we could press if we ever wanted the room cleaned up:

The presence of such a button makes me even more perplexed why the room wasn't tended to, especially since we left the room often and pressed the button every time we were away. There was no turn down service on Saturday night and the bed was never made all day Sunday. The lovely tray of 'welcome' tea sat overnight and was still there when we checked out. At some point on Sunday housekeeping came into the room to take only the teacups away. We realized this because the housekeeper left the holster to some type of wireless device with a telltale 'HK' marking on it behind in our room.

I always enjoy the room care that you receive on a cruise, and I associate that same level of service with nice hotels. I was really disappointed with this poor level of service at a hotel of this caliber and I have to wonder whether it is systemic or a start-up glitch.

At breakfast, I asked the server about the "American Breakfast" that was included as part of our room rate. I don't mean to be cheap, but the lack of clarity on what is and is not included is a little annoying. I could have just ordered whatever I wanted and hoped that it would all be included, but I'm really not that picky about what I eat for breakfast. I just wanted to know what the deal is.

The server didn't know what was included either (nobody had ever asked him before, the hotel was too new) and after multiple times going back and forth with his management the verdict was that the American Breakfast meant a $50 *per person* credit for whatever we ate that morning. $50 per person? Really? I was pretty certain that at best, it would be $50 per room. We ended up getting a continental breakfast and eggs benedict and a charge of $39 plus a tip which was surely under the $50 limit. What annoyed me about this exchange was that *they* didn't know what the deal was, and in the absence of them knowing what the deal was, they should just say "hey, get whatever you want and we'll figure it out later." I wouldn't have ordered 2 breakfasts or anything- I'd just get what I wanted and that would be it. More about the breakfast charge later...

Contrast this glitchy, clumsy interaction with the lunch we had at the staid Oak Bar at the nearby Fairmont Copley. After a long day of shopping, we stumbled in to the nearly entirely empty Oak Bar. This place is oozing with charm- it is pure old school Boston. It is also very dingy. However, the service was *perfect*. The bartender graciously let us sit anywhere in the place we wanted, set up a great little dining area for us, served us impeccably, and overall made us feel very much at home. They've been doing this for decades and they know what they're doing. A sharp contrast between the Fairmont and the Mandarin Oriental. Full disclosure- 4 years ago we stayed at the Fairmont and the room was quite tired. Would not recommend.


When we left the room (at 5:59 PM, kicking and screaming on the inside- we would have liked to stay longer) we went down to the front desk and had a look at our final folio. There were 2 charges on the list that I didn't agree with: $8 from breakfast and $23 from the in-room bar. The desk clerk knocked the in-room bar charge off without incident, but called over to the restaurant to inquire about what the charge for breakfast was. She was on the phone with them for about 5 minutes while we stood there waiting for the $8 verdict. She should have just killed the charge and sent us on our way- it was a little ridiculous.

I also mentioned the not-so-hot shower and the lack of attention to the room during our stay. Though the desk clerk was empathetic and apologetic, I felt they lacked curiosity into the specifics of the complaint and were just paying me lip service. If they really wanted to understand why I wasn't happy they would have asked clarifying questions about what I meant by "nobody serviced the room" and "the shower wasn't hot enough." Since they didn't ask me those kinds of follow-up questions, it seemed that they were primarily trained to gush sympathetically over the complaint without seeking to remedy the problem in any way.

After the check-out process was (mercifully) complete, the agent did something quite nice. She walked around the counter, handed me our folio, walked us to the front door, and wished us well. It seemed an important piece of protocol, which I did appreciate, though I was left wishing they'd engage me in more direct discussion about my dissatisfaction with certain aspects of my stay than on the pomp and circumstance associated with the farewell walk.

Outside, my man Jean was on point once again. My car was ready and waiting, and our bag was waiting in the trunk (but visible so I could confirm it was there). He asked how our stay was and when I said "good" he stopped in his tracks and asked why it wasn't great. I told him and he was more genuinely interested in hearing where they fell short than the desk clerks were. Good guy that Jean- he gets it. Big time.

On the way home, we tried to put the little things into perspective and take stock of our weekend as a whole. Again, we had a great time. But this is a review which seeks to color the experience as a whole. We knew there'd be some glitches going into it given the newness of the hotel. These start-up glitches could have been far worse. Overall, we had a splendid stay.

A couple of days later I had a look at my credit card charges. I was surprised to see that the $31 in charges I disputed upon check-out *hadn't* been credited to our account. In fact, they charged me an *extra* $31 for a total over-charge of $62! I had a look at the folio they sent me home with and noticed that it only included $31 charges and omitted the bulk of my charges.

I called them up, described the situation, and asked them to E-mail me a copy of my folio (that included all of the charges.) The agent told me they'd take care of it. I asked them to call me to confirm what "take care of it" meant. A different agent called back the next day. I asked him to E-mail me a copy of the folio too- it finally arrived a couple of days later. He said he had to work with a colleague of his to resolve the charges correctly.

There seemed to be a lack of empowerment of the employees at this hotel. Everything had to be run past a manager, and it only served to make issue resolution take longer. I feel the hotel could really benefit from empowering line level employees with small decisions like a $31 charge reversal. In the end they took care of everything, but I don't think it should take so much work on the part of the guest to make that happen. It was way too interactive a process for my taste.

Would we go back? Geez, I dunno. We'd definitely like to make an annual thing out of this, but next time I think I'll try to book a room at the Four Seasons with more advanced notice. I think it comes down to a question of style. I'm more of a Nordstrom guy than a Neiman Marcus guy. I favor quality service over being fancy. And while the service wasn't bad by any means at the Mandarin Oriental, it doesn't seem to be their primary focus. Based on my stay, if I had to guess what their primary focus is, it seems to be on understated elegance and offering a quiet enclave for guests. Not a bad aspiration, but not exactly aligned with my priorities as a guest.

UPDATE (11/30/2008): Please read my follow-up entry here.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bates Pumpkin Fair

Thursday, October 02, 2008

First Single off David Cook's Debut Album

I was a huge fan of David Cook's performance on last season's "American Idol", so when I heard he was releasing the first single of his album (due out in November) I was really looking forward to hearing it:

I'm a little disappointed with the song. Okay, a lot disappointed. I think this song is worse than almost everything he did on the show- which is amazing because on the show he was able to either select or rearrange multiple songs each week and he succeeded far more than he failed.

Question of the Day: What do you think of this song? Like it? Dislike it? Just OK?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

What is a good microphone for screencasting?

Recently, I wanted to produce some screencasts for work where I'd demonstrate doing something interactive with our software and embed that video in a blog entry. An example of a screencast I've recorded can be seen here.

The first thing I needed in order to be able to do this was a microphone. I considered using the microphone in my laptop, but that sounded awful. I also tried jamming a headset that came with our cordless phone into the mic input of my laptop, but it didn't fit.

So I did some quick research on microphones and came across this very helpful site. They produced audio clips of the same phrase recorded with microphones ranging in price from $35 to $269. The $269 mic sounds great, but the $35 Plantronics DSP-400 also sounded quite good.

I wanted to get started on my recording right away, and I thought the DSP-400 was a good value, so I went to my local Micro Center to see what they had in stock. They didn't have the DSP-400, so I got a similar but less expensive Plantronics microphone for $20. Here is a link to the microphone I bought on with my affiliate information included (they have it for $13.31):

Plantronics .Audio 310

Here are two recordings of the same sentence with the Plantronics .Audio 310.

First, as a screencast recorded with Camtasia and uploaded to Viddler as an FLV:

Second, as a .wav file:

I don't hear a ton of difference between the video and the .wav (which is good because if there was a big difference it would mean the Flash recording of audio was too lossy).

I'm relatively happy with the Plantronics .Audio 310. If I continue doing a lot of screencasting I may considering buying a nicer microphone, but for now this one is good enough to capture my voice without distractingly poor quality.

If you're in the market for a microphone for your computer, I hope you find this information helpful. Consider it my little contribution to the review of microphones everywhere.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...