A Narrow Escape

Yesterday, my Surface 3 was sitting on my desk, plugged in for charging and quietly minding its own business. Our dog Watson decided to walk past and got his leg caught in the cable. He carried on walking and pulled the Surface 3 off the desk and on to the tiled floor. I saw it happen, but was unable to catch it in time. All I could do was to utter a very loud expletive.

The Surface 3 landed on the point of one corner. I picked it up in dread, fearing that, at the very least, the screen would have cracked. To my surprise, the screen was intact, and the machine still working. The only evidence of the fall is the slight dent on the corner.


It’s tougher than I thought.

Posted in Computers and Internet | 2 Comments


Here we go again, more deluded fools with guns and explosives murdering innocents, followed by a statement from IS that is “written in the standard, sententious style of Isis and other militant pronouncements and is framed by a worldview that has become wearily familiar over recent years”.

The late Iain M. Banks summed it up well in his novel Against A Dark Background:

Sorrow be damned and all your plans. Fuck the faithful, fuck the committed, the dedicated, the true believers; fuck all the sure and certain people prepared to maim and kill whoever got in their way; fuck every cause that ended in murder and a child screaming.


Posted in News and politics, Society | Leave a comment

The Saga of Broadband Internet

Almost a year ago, I blogged about the poor state of internet in the Dutch countryside, and about our area in particular. Even though the Netherlands as a whole is high up in the league table of countries enjoying fast broadband internet, 196,000 households and 132,000 businesses in the Netherlands do not have fast broadband internet (defined by the EU as being 30 Megabits per second or faster). Far from it, many households and businesses around here are lucky if they get 3 Mbps.

A year ago, it looked as though things might improve – the Province of Gelderland, in cooperation with ten Local Authorities (including ours), announced an initiative to lay fibre optic cables in countryside areas.

Alas, it looks as though the project has run into difficulties – some thrown up by the EU, and some thrown up by KPN – the largest telecom provider here in the Netherlands.

The plan was for the initiative to set up a company to lay the cables, and then lease them out to network operators for running of the network and provision of internet services to customers. The EU took a dim view of this idea, claiming it was not the role of government to get involved in the free market.

Then KPN announced that it would be investing less in the laying of fibre-to-the-home (FTTH), and focusing more on upgrading the old ADSL-based copper cable network by investing in VDSL technologies, and also investing in 4G mobile networks.

Broadband internet has been discussed a number of times in the Dutch parliament this year, and the Minister of Economic Affairs (Minister Henk Kamp) has made it clear that he does not see a country-wide rollout of fibre-optic cables as the answer, but is more interested in having a smorgasbord of technologies (strangely enough, eerily similar to those proposed by the KPN).

Unfortunately, I think that all this will lead to a further gulf in the digital divide between those who can enjoy fast internet at an affordable price, and those who must remain in the slow lane, or pay through the nose for fast internet. The difference between living in the town or the countryside, in other words.

Let’s take my situation as a typical example of someone living in the countryside. The original plan from the Province and the Local Authority was to provide me with FTTH for a one-time cost of €500 and a small additional monthly charge on top of my internet subscription to cover the total cost of laying the cable.  The cost of laying FTTH in the countryside is high, because new cables have to be laid to each home, farm, or business. According to Stratix, this would be in the region of €6,000 per connection (with some outliers in the Netherlands reaching several hundreds of thousands of euros). By contrast, in a town, the cost is around €600 per connection.

However, if the FTTH plan does not go ahead in some fashion, what are the alternatives?

KPN has said that they intend to upgrade 100,000 households currently on ADSL to VDSL technologies. This entails laying fibre from the telephone central exchanges to the wiring cabinets placed in a neighbourhood. The new fibre would replace the current copper cables that connect the cabinets to the exchanges. However, the connections between the wiring cabinets and the individual homes or premises would still be the original copper cables. KPN claims that this upgrade would deliver internet speeds of up to 100 Mbps. What they don’t say is that these speeds are only achievable over short distances. If you live (like I do) more than 2 kilometres from a wiring cabinet, then you won’t see much improvement over ADSL speeds. So, while I currently enjoy 4 Mbps over ADSL, I might get 8 Mbps over a VDSL connection. The only way that this could be improved would be for KPN to invest in many more wiring cabinets placed closer to houses out in the countryside. There’s also the point that these VDSL technologies consume more energy than ADSL (and more than fibre). Their ecological footprint is not good. Not for nothing does Stratix label these technologies as “last gasp”.

KPN has also just announced that it will offer fast internet via 4G to the 100,000 households that it views as being “deep in the countryside”. It claims that this is “the solution for places with less than 6 Mbps internet speed via ADSL”. Well, that’s certainly me, but then KPN qualifies it by saying:

In order to protect the quality of our 4G network, this [solution] is only available for addresses where:

  • Internet speed is less than 6 Mbps via ADSL and there is no planned upgrade in speed in the coming 6 months
  • The addresses are outside of town or village centres
  • There is sufficient capacity in the 4G network

Our house certainly qualifies for the first two conditions, but it seems that there is a question mark against the capacity of KPN’s 4G network – when I entered our address into KPN’s availability check, it claimed that “Alas, this [solution] is not available for your address”.

[Update: and now, a few days later, the availability check claims that the solution is available for our address.]

Even if it were to be though it is available, I am far from convinced that it is the solution for me. One big difference between the subscriptions for ADSL/fibre and 4G is that ADSL/fibre subscriptions are based on charging for speed, whilst 4G subscriptions are based on data volume. So currently, I pay €50 per month for our internet and telephone access, with no data caps and unlimited telephone calls within the Netherlands, whereas with KPN’s 4G solution I would be paying €50 per month for internet only (no telephone), with a data cap of 50 GB per month. I would need to pay an additional €38 per month for our telephone. And 50 GB per month is nothing – last month we used 105 GB – and that is without any downloading/streaming of films from sites such as Netflix. Admittedly, I download preview builds of Windows 10 and other software under test, but I would argue that I am not too different in my usage pattern than someone working from home making use of Cloud services and video-conferencing. Equally for families using Netflix or similar services – 50 GB per month is not very much at all.

The KPN 4G service does not support interactive TV services either, so unlike fast internet via fibre or VDSL/ADSL, you can’t have a so-called “triple-play” subscription (a combined internet+telephone+TV service). Most of us out here in the wilds get our TV service via satellite dish, so we’d have to continue with our subscriptions to the satellite services company (CanalDigitaal).

I summarise the costs of the various scenarios in the table below. For the “Fibre” scenario, I’ve assumed that fibre-optic cable has been laid to our house, that I’ve paid the one-off charge of €500, and that the cable company would make a monthly supplemental charge of €22.50 to recoup the cost of laying the cable over a 20 year period. The triple-play subscription is what I would pay to my current internet service provider for a download speed of 20 Mbps.

Monthly charge Current KPN 4G Fibre
Internet €50
Telephone €38
TV €17.95 €17.95
Internet+Telephone €50
Internet+Telephone+TV €55
Fibre connection charge €22.50 (est.)
Total: €67.95 €105.95 €77.50

To sum up then, the 4G alternative to FTTH is not attractive to me, either on practical or economic grounds. Sorry, Minister Kamp and KPN, you will have to do better than this.

Posted in Computers and Internet | 7 Comments

Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my favourite writers. The question: “where do you get your ideas from?” is the starting point for a wonderful essay and meditation on this question.

Please follow the link and read it – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Even if you don’t want to spend the time reading it, follow the link anyway, and you’ll be rewarded with the most stunning photograph of the 86 year-old author: simultaneously wise and mischievous – the sort of human being it would surely be a privilege to know and to count on as a friend.

(hat tip, once again, to Nicholas Whyte for drawing this essay to my attention)

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And Microsoft Does It Yet Again…

Oh dear, regular as clockwork, Microsoft opens its mouth to change feet, and creates another PR fiasco for itself.

A year ago, Microsoft announced that it would deliver unlimited cloud storage to Office 365 subscribers:

Today, storage limits just became a thing of the past with Office 365. Moving forward, all Office 365 customers will get unlimited OneDrive storage at no additional cost. We’ve started rolling this out today to Office 365 Home, Personal, and University customers.

I signed up for this, and a few months ago, my 1 TB storage on OneDrive was increased, by Microsoft, to 10 TB, at no additional charge. If I were to put all of my music, photos, home videos and documents on OneDrive, then I would currently be using about 0.7 TB. That’s still comfortably under the old 1 TB limit, but the margin shrinks every year (I’m a packrat).

It all seemed too good to be true. It was.

Yesterday, Microsoft announced that there are going to be changes:

    • We’re no longer planning to offer unlimited storage to Office 365 Home, Personal, or University subscribers. Starting now, those subscriptions will include 1 TB of OneDrive storage.
    • 100 GB and 200 GB paid plans are going away as an option for new users and will be replaced with a 50 GB plan for $1.99 per month in early 2016.
    • Free OneDrive storage will decrease from 15 GB to 5 GB for all users, current and new. The 15 GB camera roll storage bonus will also be discontinued. These changes will start rolling out in early 2016.

The reason for these changes is that, according to Microsoft, “a small number of users backed up numerous PCs and stored entire movie collections and DVR recordings. In some instances, this exceeded 75 TB per user or 14,000 times the average”.

It does seem a little disingenuous of Microsoft to offer “unlimited” storage at no additional cost, and then be surprised when some people take them at their word. It would seem that we are all being punished for the actions of a few. And I use the word “punished”advisedly. By Microsoft’s own admission, the average user has 5.35 GB stored in their OneDrive (75TB / 14,000). Microsoft has now reduced the free OneDrive storage from 15GB down to just 5 GB (and abolished the 15 GB camera roll bonus). So the average OneDrive user will start paying.

Lowering the free storage from 30 GB down to just 5 GB for millions of customers does seem to be a slap in the face, even if Microsoft has attempted to offer a sweetener in the form of a free one-year (only) subscription to Office 365 Personal (with its 1 TB of OneDrive storage). I suspect many of those customers will simply walk and switch to alternative Cloud services such as DropBox or Google Drive, because at a single stroke Microsoft has just made their competitors’ services cheaper than OneDrive.

Sometimes I wonder what goes on in the minds of Microsoft management…

Posted in Computers and Internet, Organizations | 2 Comments

“Home”- By Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

(hat tip to Nicholas Whyte for bringing my attention to this poem by Warsan Shire)

Posted in Poetry, Society | Leave a comment

The Lenovo Yoga 900 – Software

My last post looked at the hardware and performance of the new Lenovo Yoga 900. This post takes a look at the experience of the initial setup of Windows 10, and the software bundled with the Yoga 900 by Lenovo.

Windows 10

The Yoga 900 comes with Windows 10 installed and ready to be set up when the Yoga 900 is first turned on. “Setting up” involves choosing the language(s) you want Windows 10 to use, creating a user account, and connecting to a WiFi network. I’m based in the Netherlands, and Microsoft’s Cortana is not (yet) available for the Dutch market. Since I wanted to try out Cortana, I set up Windows 10 to use British English, and set the region to the UK:


There is, of course, the legal stuff to accept…


The next step is to connect to a Wi-Fi network. While this step can be skipped, and network connections set up later, it’s best to do it now for two reasons. First, critical software updates to Windows 10 that were issued after the operating system was installed during the manufacture of the Yoga 900 can be immediately installed, and second, if you want to create a Microsoft account during set up, it’s easier to be connected to the internet for this step.


Once connected, Windows 10 will offer to use the Express settings for the fastest setup, but you can elect to customise any of the defaults if you so wish.


At this point, if you have set up the network connection, Windows 10 will download and install any critical updates for you.


Then comes an important question: “who owns the Yoga 900?”. The choice is between you or the company/organisation you work for. Your answer determines whether the Yoga 900 gets automatically joined to the company’s IT network to use the systems there, or, if it is a machine for your personal use, it will be set up for you. Your answer determines which apps, settings and permissions will be used during the rest of the set up process.


Assuming that it is your Yoga 900, then the next step is to create your account on the machine. If you already have a Microsoft account, used on other PCs and/or Windows Phones, then enter your details here. If you don’t yet have a Microsoft account, you can use this step to create one. You can also elect not to have a Microsoft account associated with this machine at all, but use a “local” account that is unique to this Yoga 900. You do this by choosing the “skip this step” option.


The last step in the process is to choose your PIN, which is a faster way to log in than typing in a long, strong, password (you do have a long, strong, password, don’t you?).


And now you’re all set; Windows 10 will set up your default apps and bring you to the desktop:


The Start menu will probably look something like this, with a set of default apps:


These will be a mixture of apps provided by Microsoft and those provided by Lenovo for the Yoga 900. Which brings me to:

Lenovo Software

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of the OEM practice of bundling a long list of software applications in with their machines. Lenovo is well-known for doing this. For the most part, I find such applications to be of limited, if not questionable, value. The first thing I usually do on setting up such a machine is to remove all such non-essential software. To be fair to Lenovo, they are trying to clean up their act, and the Yoga 900 comes with the shortest list of bundled applications that I’ve seen so far from them. Looking in the Windows 10 list of installed programs, I found the following:


Application Type

Application Name

Lenovo Applications

Lenovo Accelerator Application

Lenovo Battery Gauge

Lenovo Companion 3.0
Lenovo Experience Improvement
Lenovo FusionEngine

Lenovo ID

Lenovo Photo Master

Lenovo Product Demo

Lenovo QuickOptimizer

Lenovo REACHit and SHAREit

Lenovo Settings 3.0

Lenovo Solution Center
OneKey Recovery

User Guide

Security & Productivity

McAfee LiveSafe (trial)

Microsoft Office 2016 (trial)

Having a separate application for the User Guide seems somewhat pointless, as the User Guide is now integrated into the Lenovo Companion.

Looking at the list of Lenovo applications, there’s a couple that I haven’t the faintest idea of what they do, and one that I can guess at. The unknowns are:

  • Lenovo FusionEngine
  • Lenovo Utility

It would be nice to have a clear statement from Lenovo as to what these applications are intended to achieve.

Lenovo Experience Improvement

My guess is that the Lenovo Experience Improvement application is collecting and reporting to Lenovo non-personally identifiable statistical data, for example:

  • both the configuration and region when the system is first activated,
  • ongoing information on how often key components are used.

Not everyone is happy with this sort of data-gathering, and those that aren’t can simply uninstall this application. However, it doesn’t overly bother me, and many manufacturers are doing it these days – even my printer is phoning home and reporting statistics. This kind of information helps manufacturers better understand how their products are being used and perform in the field, and this helps influence design decisions for future product generations.

Lenovo Battery Gauge

This is actually a useful extension to the standard battery control of Windows 10. It replaces the standard Windows 10 battery notification in the taskbar with a (somewhat clumsy) Lenovo design.


It’s useful, because it gives access to a “conservation” mode of charging, where the battery is only charged to 55-60%. This maximises the life of the battery. This mode is not available in standard Windows 10. However, the design of the Lenovo control could be improved. If the icon is touched or clicked, the full Lenovo Settings app is started, and the power section shown:


This uses a lot of screen real estate to display relatively little information. It’s also not obvious that not all the power controls are being shown here. You need to scroll down to see additional options, but there is no indication that the page is scrollable until you try to interact with it. I’ll have more to say about the Lenovo Settings app in a moment. But first, here’s how the same information is presented on the Yoga 3 Pro:


This is a much more compact method of displaying options to the user, and personally, I much prefer this approach to that of the Lenovo Settings app.

Lenovo Settings

In an ideal world, the controls for hardware specific features would be integrated into the Windows 10 Settings screens directly; everything would be accessible via the Windows 10 settings, which would be extended as required by specific hardware or features. In the days of Windows 7, this was done by extending the Control Panel applets with extra tabbed input panels.

Now, in Windows 10 as it is at the moment, we have a bit of a dog’s dinner, where some settings are only accessible via the Lenovo Settings app, some are exposed as extra tabs in traditional Control Panel applets (for example, the Synaptics Touchpad settings), and some are directly accessible via Windows 10 Settings.

The Lenovo Settings app has its own manner and style of user interface. It would be much more preferable if it followed the same style guide as Windows 10 Settings. That would help it to blend in with the “house style” of Windows 10, and not stick out like a sore thumb.

In some cases, there are clickable links on the Lenovo Settings pages that invoke traditional Control Panel applets. Here, for example is the input settings page, with links under the “More” heading to invoke the mouse properties window or the Pen and Touch window.


Clicking on the “mouse properties” link should bring up the Synaptics tab of the traditional mouse Control Panel applet:


Well, it is invoked, but unfortunately the window is not brought to the foreground, and if the Yoga 900 is in tablet mode there is no indication on the Taskbar that the window even exists. This is not a good user experience.

Another problem area in the Lenovo Settings app is that the settings do not always reflect reality. It is very easy, for example, to get into the situation where the Settings app claims that the keyboard backlight is “on”, when in fact it is “off” – and vice versa. Setting features via the keyboard seems to be independent of setting them via the Settings app, when good user interface design would seem to demand that all controls should be in lockstep and display the current actual settings at all times.

Lenovo Companion

  • The Lenovo Companion app brings together the following areas:
  • Support (warranty, technical support, and community support)
  • System health (battery, storage, memory, and hardware diagnostics)
  • System update (automatic download and installation of Lenovo-specific updates)
  • Technical news, Lenovo-specific articles and news on apps made by or offered by Lenovo.

I have found that I really only use the Companion app to check for system updates. For community support (i.e. accessing the Lenovo Forums and Knowledge Base articles), I will go directly to the Forums via a Web browser – it’s far faster and easier to use than accessing them via the Companion app.

Lenovo Photo Master

This appears to be an app developed for Lenovo by CyberLink. It allows you to browse your photo collection held on the Yoga 900, and to import photos to that collection from online services such as Flickr, OneDrive and Facebook.

It is one of the many alternatives to the built-in Photos app of Windows 10. Given that the Photos app is still very limited in functionality (but supposedly still being developed and extended by Microsoft), many people seek out an alternative.

Unfortunately, Photo Master is itself fairly limited. It does not support descriptive tags, held in photo metadata. So you can’t search for photos by using tags[1], or manage the tags in your photos. It does support tagging of people’s faces in photos – it can identify a face (but not who the person is), and you can then add a name to the face. It stores this information in the photos as metadata. However, it uses Microsoft’s proprietary People tag schema to do this. This schema was introduced by Microsoft back in Windows 7. Since then, an open standard for face tagging has been developed by the Metadata Working Group, and implemented in photo products such as Google’s Picasa, Adobe’s Lightroom and IDimager’s Photo Supreme. It’s a little unfortunate that Lenovo has not chosen to use this open standard, but has gone with a Microsoft proprietary approach (that itself seems to have been dropped by Microsoft since 2012).

Lenovo QuickOptimizer and Lenovo Accelerator Application

This was a separate application in the Yoga 3 Pro (OneKey Optimizer), but now it appears to have been split into these two components which are in turn integrated into the Lenovo Companion app. There is also an Optimizer icon placed on the Taskbar which can invoke two pop-up controls; one to launch the “full optimizer” (which invokes the Companion app opened to the “Optimize your IdeaPad” section) and an “App acceleration” control allowing you to choose which applications you wish to accelerate.

clip_image030 clip_image032

I have to say that I’m somewhat uneasy about using the app acceleration control in particular, especially after reading this review of the original Optimizer app, with its rather damning conclusion. I’ll be giving these applications a miss.

Lenovo Solution Center

This is another utility that previously led an independent existence, but which now can be invoked via the Companion app in the “Hardware Scan” section. Unfortunately, it’s an application designed for the traditional desktop environment, and is not aware of desktop scaling. The result being that it displays in a small window lost on the Yoga 900’s desktop (which here I have set to 200% scaling, rather than the recommended 250%. If it were to be at the recommended setting, then the LSC window would be even smaller):


LSC needs to be brought up to date for today’s world of high resolution desktops.

Lenovo REACHit and SHAREit

I’m not the target customer for these two apps. I live almost entirely inside the Microsoft ecosystem. I don’t own any Apple or Android products, and I use OneDrive, not DropBox or any other cloud storage service. Via OneDrive, I can easily share information with friends and family even though they may live equally exclusively in Apple or Android ecosystems. So REACHit and SHAREit seem to offer me no added value. As a result, I don’t use them.

OneKey Recovery

This is a system image backup and recovery utility. It can be invoked from within Windows, or directly from the BIOS via a physical button (recessed) on the right hand side of the Yoga 900. It can be used to take backups of a running system and restore them, or restore the Yoga 900 to its original factory state, using a recovery image stored on a hidden disk partition.

Windows 10 (and Windows 8.1 before it) also has the ability to restore the Yoga 900 to its original factory state, so OneKey Recovery is no longer the essential utility that it once was. However, in the event of a complete failure of Windows, it can be a lifesaver, offering a restore to Windows 10 in its factory state at the push of a single button.

Software summary

With a few exceptions (e.g. the Battery Gauge), I remain somewhat unconvinced about the value-add of Lenovo’s software. For the most part, however, you can choose whether to use them or not, and uninstall them if you so wish.

[1] Windows 10 does know about photo metadata, and you can use File Explorer to search on photo tags.

Posted in Computers and Internet | 2 Comments