Wolf Hall

The BBC’s six-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels (Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies) drew to a close last night. What a wonderful six hours that was! Mesmeric, with acting of the highest order from all concerned.

If I have one small carp (a tiny goldfish, really), it was that the director’s insistence on shooting night scenes lit only by torchlight and candles, whilst artistically correct, was not well served by the lenses that they used. It’s a pity that they couldn’t have got hold of the lenses used by Kubrick for Barry Lyndon, that might have helped a bit with the gloom.

Posted in Television | Leave a comment

The World’s Most Important Operating System

I was saddened to learn today that Bill Hill died of a heart attack back in October 2012. Bill was a Scotsman who started out life as a newspaperman and became a typographer, but ended up working for Microsoft.

In this short video clip Bill explains why the world’s most important operating system is not Windows or OSX or Linux or Android. It’s Homo sapiens 1.0. It’s an operating system that first booted up about 100,000 years ago, and has never yet had an upgrade.

There’s more videos of Bill available here. A memorial, of sorts. RIP, Bill.

Posted in Books, Computers and Internet, Nature, Science | Leave a comment

Metro – Murdered By Microsoft?

When Microsoft introduced Windows Phone, precisely five years ago, the major differentiator from Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android was the user experience. Microsoft called the design language: Metro; that is until Metro AG threatened Microsoft with legal action for using that name. Now Microsoft no longer use the term Metro, and indeed it would appear that they no longer want to use many of the elements that made Metro the innovation that it was.

One of the design innovations was lateral scrolling within apps to reveal different functions (the so-called “Pivot” control). The use of large fonts in the app title cued the user that more was available by scrolling laterally, e.g. as here in the Photos app:

WP8 04

Along with Metro came concepts such as the “hub” – single points of entry where similar items from different sources would be consolidated. So, for example, the Photos app consolidated your photos from cloud sources such as Facebook, Flickr and OneDrive with the photos that were on the phone itself. You no longer had to worry about where the photos were held, and open up a Facebook app or a Flickr app; they were all available in one place.

Unfortunately, I suspect that companies such as Facebook and Flickr didn’t like the hub concept, because they saw it as threatening the power of their brand. Microsoft has responded by either removing the consolidation feature completely (e.g. the integration with Facebook and Flickr that existed in the Photos app in Windows 8 was ripped out for the Photos app in Windows 8.1), or watered down.

Now it seems that Microsoft is turning its back on other design aspects of Metro, and is busily introducing design concepts copied from Android (e.g. the infamous “Hamburger” button). We first saw this in the new version of the OneDrive app, introduced in October 2014:

WP8 05

You’ll notice that not only is the “Hamburger” button present (it’s the three horizontal lines at the top left), but the Pivot design element has also gone. This redesign was met with howls of protest. As I said at the time:

Frankly, if I’d wanted an Android phone, I would have bought one. One of the key reasons why I went with a Windows Phone was the UI design. I like it a lot, and I am at ease with it. To have a key Microsoft team turn their back on it and introduce Android elements is a shock, to say the least.

One might almost wonder if the team had actually read the “Review questions for prototype” section on the “Design the best app you can” page of the UI guidelines, in particular:

  • Are you coming from another mobile platform? Windows Phone users will expect fewer taps, clearer views, large typography, and the use of contrast and color.
  • Are you using both axes of scrolling (the X and Y axes) and orientation (Portrait and Landscape)? Depending on the purpose of your app, users may expect both.
  • Do you use Pivot and Hub controls effectively and correctly?

Even simple things, such as a transparent Tile for the app have been forgotten about (or ignored) in this bastardised design. I hope that the howls of protest that have greeted this version result in a swift redesign to make it a proper Windows Phone app.

Good design and adhering to UI guidelines are important, and help to build a brand. This horror does just the opposite.

Looking at what is coming out in the Windows 10 previews, Microsoft is simply steaming ahead with the Androidification of Windows. Metro has been dragged behind the arras, with a dagger in its back.

Posted in Computers and Internet | Tagged | 3 Comments

Dear God…

…will someone please take the new Guardian web site and its designers far, far away? It’s not an improvement on the old, staid, “newspaper on the web” approach.

Here’s a case in point: an article about the great Irish actor Michael Gambon having to call it a day because he can’t remember his lines any more:

http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/feb/08/sir-michael-gambon-ends-theatre-career-memory

And what does the Guardian show us as “related content”? Fucking obituaries! Er, hello, Guardian web people, Gambon is not dead yet.

I despair…

Posted in Performing Arts | 2 Comments

Lenovo ThinkPad 10 vs Yoga 3 Pro

I’ll kick this post off with a disclaimer: YMMV – Your Mileage May Vary. That’s to say that what follows is entirely my subjective impression based upon my usage requirements for portable computing. Your requirements may well be entirely different, and so would your conclusions be in the following comparison.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let me remind you that last September, I received a ThinkPad 10 tablet on long-term loan from Lenovo. I blogged about my first impressions of it in a post that compared it to my ThinkPad Tablet 2, which I had purchased myself back in January 2013.

I must admit that in the ensuing months, I quickly began to like the ThinkPad 10 (TP10); so much so that I sold my ThinkPad Tablet 2. The TP10, in combination with the Lenovo Quickshot Cover, fits my requirements for portable computing very well indeed. In particular I like:

  • the size and weight (not too big, clumsy or heavy),
  • the 16:10 screen aspect ratio (better for reading books than 16:9 aspect ratio devices)
  • the pen – I prefer scribbling notes and diagrams in OneNote during meetings to typing
  • the performance – not a speed demon, but more than adequate for what I use (OneNote, Mail, browsing with IE, Word, Excel, Powerpoint)
  • the UI experience of Windows 8.1 in a tablet.

And there things stood until a couple of weeks ago, when Lenovo asked me if I would like to try a Yoga Pro 3 (Y3P). I replied that I was interested in trying out the Consumer Technical Preview of Windows 10, so if I could use the Y3P for that, then yes, please. A package containing a rather smart box (see below) was delivered a few days later, a couple of days before Microsoft unveiled the next stage of Windows 10. The box itself is a slick piece of paper engineering – after taking off the lid, you fold back the two flaps covering the top, and as you do so, the Y3P rises out of the box to greet you. A nice touch.

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I have the orange version of the Y3P, which is pleasingly different to the usual black or silver Ultrabooks:

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The most striking thing, of course, is that “ watchband” hinge. It’s unique in the portable computer world. I rather like it, I have to say.

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Being an Ultrabook, the Y3P has more ports than the TP10. The left side has Lenovo’s battery charger port (which also doubles as a USB 2.0 port), a USB 3.0 port, a Micro-HDMI port, and a full-size 4-in-1 (MMC, SD, SDXC and SDHC) Memory Card slot. The right side has another USB 3.0 port (which can also be used to charge Smartphones), a headphone socket, Volume controls, Auto screen rotation lock, a recessed Reset button and a Power button.

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I do prefer the buttons on the Y3P, they are slightly proud of the case, and far easier to use than those on the TP10, which continue to be a slight source of irritation if ever I need to use them. Fortunately I rarely need to, as the TP10’s Quickshot cover acts as a power (sleep) button, and I tend to use the onscreen Volume controls in place of the physical buttons.

Opening up the Y3P is a bit of a palaver, in comparison to simply flipping open the Quickshot Cover on the TP10. The watchband hinge is stiff (as it needs to be), and my fingers find it difficult to get a purchase at the front of the Y3P to begin prising it open. Once open, a fairly standard keyboard and trackpad are revealed (you’ll notice that the matt finish of the trackpad shows up finger oil very well).

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I’m sure some long-term Lenovo users will be complaining that there is no TrackPoint device, but it’s been so long since I used one that I don’t miss it. This Y3P is the first device I’ve used that has a backlit keyboard, and I must admit that is one innovation that I have really begun to appreciate. Tapping away of an evening, seated in front of the TV, is so much easier with a backlit keyboard. With my tablet, most of the time I’m either writing, or using the on-screen keyboard (which of course is easily visible), but on the occasions when I do use a physical keyboard, it’s been one without a backlight, and now I realise the advantage of having a backlit keyboard.

The Y3P is of course much bigger than the TP10. That means both more weight (1.9 Kg versus 0.6 Kg), and a bigger screen.  Here’s the TP10 laid on top of the Y3P to give you an idea of the difference:

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The screen of the Y3P is not only physically bigger (13.3” diagonal versus 10.1”), but it has a higher resolution (3200 x 1800 versus 1920 x 1200) than the TP10. It also has a higher pixel density (276.05 dpi versus  224.17 dpi), but note that it is yet another 16:9 aspect ratio device.

Like the TP10, it has a touchscreen capable of registering 10-point gestures. However, unlike the TP10, there is no pen or active digitiser.

A couple of other things that are lacking in the Y3P in comparison to the TP10:

  • There is no rear camera, so capturing documents will have to be done with your Smartphone.
  • There’s no GNSS chip, so you’ll have to rely on your WiFi location being known accurately if you are using a map application. However, I doubt that this will work if you are using your laptop with the train’s WiFi during your daily commute.
  • There’s no WWAN option available (my loan TP10 doesn’t have WWAN either, but this is available as an option).

The Y3P is equipped with an Intel Core M processor. The model I have has the 5Y70 chip, which is a 2 core/4 thread chip running at 1.1GHz or 2.6 GHz in Turbo boost. It has 8 GB of memory, and a 256 GB SSD fitted for storage. Although in theory the Core M processors are suitable for fanless designs, the Y3P is fitted with a fan. I can occasionally just hear it – a faint hiss coming from the right hand end of the watchband.

Performance-wise, then, it far outstrips the Intel Atom processor with its 4 GB memory in the TP10. Yet, most of the time, I simply don’t notice it in the software I use.

The Y3P came with even more Bloatware pre-installed by Lenovo than the TP10. As you can tell, I am not a fan of the extra software that OEM manufacturers throw into their machines. I spent an afternoon getting rid of most of them (and one of Lenovo’s applications – Harmony – refused to uninstall itself, until I took extreme measures). There must have been well over twenty different packages, practically all of them of questionable utility as far as I’m concerned.

I have installed Build 9926 of the Windows 10 Technical Preview on to the Y3P, but I’ll keep my comments on that for another post.

To sum up my thoughts on the comparison between the Y3P and the TP10 thus far, I think it’s safe to say that I still much prefer the TP10 over the Y3P.

The Yoga 3 Pro is a nice machine; well engineered, but I think it has helped confirm my suspicion that my preferred portable computing device is a tablet equipped with a pen. I look forward to continuing to test out Windows 10 on it, but I’ll continue to take my trusty TP10 with me to meetings, and for kicking back on the sofa of an evening. But as I said at the outset, your requirements, and your conclusions may be completely different to mine…

Posted in Computers and Internet | 1 Comment

OneDrive Now Searches Tags!

I’ve been complaining for nearly four years now that Microsoft’s OneDrive does not support searching of photo metadata. In July 2013, I was told by a Microsoft project manager:

“this work just ranks lower on the priority list than some other things we are doing right now”

In May 2014, Microsoft trumpeted that they had made improvements to the OneDrive service, but proper support for Tags (in photo metadata) still wasn’t there. So searching for a Tag (for example: “Clouds”) in all the photos I have stored in OneDrive returned zero results:

Onedrive 04

And that’s where things stood right up to the last time I tried the experiment, which was earlier this month.

Today, I thought that I would try once again, and this time, to my surprise and delight, there was a result:

OneDrive 10

As you can see from the information pane on the right, the selected photo does indeed have the descriptive tag “clouds” included in the photo metadata.

There have been some other changes to the OneDrive service as well. If I look at a photo in OneDrive, instead of being able to open up an information pane to display all the photo metadata, there is now an information icon shown in the bottom right of the window:

OneDrive 12

Clicking/Touching that icon now displays the photo metadata in an overlay instead of in an adjacent pane:

OneDrive 11

I’m really pleased that this support for Tags, and being able to search on them is finally included in OneDrive. In one way, it really had to be, because Microsoft has gone back to the drawing board and will be removing the ability to search OneDrive files in the Windows Explorer in Windows 10, at least in the initial release of Windows 10.

What Microsoft giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the other…

Posted in Computers and Internet, Photography | 19 Comments

Home Automation: A Modern Tower of Babel

A little while back, I blogged about the fact that broadband internet in our neck of the Netherlands is like a piece of wet string. In trying to drum up local support for improving the situation, I’ve been looking into scenarios where real broadband internet (that is, speeds of at least 10 Mbps, and preferably 20+ Mbps) are going to be required.

From a purely selfish perspective, I’m uncomfortably aware that given my age, there’s going to come a time when I may need to depend on healthcare services delivered through broadband internet direct to our home. One of the aspects of such services is support for home automation (or Domotica, as it’s often called here in the Netherlands). While HA is usually thought about in terms of ease, security and energy efficiency, there’s also a healthcare aspect to it as well. For example, remote monitoring can allow patients with dementia to continue to live at home in the environment that they are comfortable with.

So I thought that I should start exploring the possibilities of HA for our home. I’d start simple, for example, have certain lights come on at around sunset, and turn off at midnight, or install a motion sensor in our driveway to get early warning when we have visitors; and at night the sensor could also turn on lights for the driveway. That would in turn be a convenience for visitors and a deterrent for intruders.

Of course, these simple scenarios could be realised with a few timers and lights controlled by motion sensors, but the real advantages start to come when individual items are linked together into a system. An individual neuron doesn’t do much – intelligence is the emergent property that arises out of the interconnection between billions of them. While I’m not looking to build a brain, a flexible method of controlling the environment and security of our house would be nice.

However, when I started researching the technologies available for Home Automation, I soon realised that there’s a dog’s breakfast of competing products and standards out there. Some have been around for years. The X10 standard for example was developed in 1975, and while popular and used by an installed base of millions of devices, is beginning to show its age and limitations. Other newer products, while technically impressive, rely on proprietary technology unique to the vendor. Examples are the Insteon or the Loxone systems. Navigating through the shoals of reefs and whirlpools of Home Automation was not going to be an easy matter. As the Automated Home site says:

There are a multitude of Home Automation systems available, from budget plugin modules that are easily retro-fitted into existing properties, to professionally designed bespoke installations that require a CI (customer installer or integrator) and structured wiring at time of build.

I think I can forget about the professionally designed bespoke installations with their structured wiring – I’m going to be looking at something that can be retro-fitted easily into our farmhouse. That means that I’ll be looking at wireless systems as much as possible. I’d also prefer to go for products that share a modern de facto standard, rather than rely on a single vendor. As a result, I’ve decided that devices that implement the Z-Wave wireless communications protocol are probably my best bet, given that Z-Wave is supported by over 250 manufacturers worldwide.

I’ve started small, and invested in one switchable power plug (the Fibaro Wall Plug) and a motion sensor (the Everspring SP103) – both Z-Wave devices.

The next step is to make a choice about the controller for the HA system. Once again, there is a wide range of possibilities here. I could buy an off-the-shelf unit such as the Fibaro Home Center 2, the Zipato ZipaBox, a VeraEdge controller, or a HomeSeer controller. Or I could buy just the controller software, such as HomeSeer, and install it on a PC or a Rasberry Pi box. There are also open source projects for Home Automation software, such as HomeGenie and Domoticz.

I’m still exploring the possibilities here. I’ve come across a few issues so far. For example, while the Fibaro Home Center 2 looks good on paper, judging from the user support forum, Fibaro are struggling to deliver a stable version of the controller software. The ZipaBox relies on a Cloud service to provide much of the controller functionality, and that’s a design choice that I personally would be less comfortable with. The HomeSeer software has been around for a while, and is now in its third generation. That does mean that it is very comprehensive; it can control a wide range of Home Automation hardware – far more than I would ever need or use. It also has a wide range of third-party plugins. However, its user interface can best be described as old-school utilitarian. There is an additional software product that can be used to design custom user interfaces for smartphones and tablets. And the HomeSeer software strikes me as being pricey: $249.95 for the basic version of the controller software and $199.95 for the UI designer software. If I were to go with HomeSeer, it would probably make more sense for me to buy the basic (linux-based) HomeTroller Zee controller at $199.95.

So I’ll probably spend the next month or two trying out some of the controller software that’s available for Z-Wave networks, and hanging out in the user support forums to read about the experiences of others who are using controllers, both packaged and software-only solutions. Watch this space.

Posted in Computers and Internet, Consumer Electronics | 1 Comment