Windows 8 – A Tale of Love and Hate

Accessori Hardware mouse tastiere e webcam inn...

Accessori Hardware mouse tastiere e webcam innovative per Microsoft Windows 8 presentazione milanese press day esclusiva – 25 (Photo credit: Michele Ficara Manganelli)

Most people will by now be aware at least of Microsoft’s latest platform for playing Angry Birds on – Windows 8 – but some may not be aware of the controversy it caused.

It was a radical change in how people operated windows and this annoyed many who were familiar with the Windows 95 to Windows 7 era as gone were the familiar start button and desktop in favour of the flat, unadorned, information-heavy tiled interface. The comments weren’t simply of dislike, many they were downright venomous – from the likes of “Microsoft are idiots” to “Microsoft have killed the PC” and worse.

It’s pleasantly colourful, not garish like the Windows XP “Fisher Price” look of ten years ago.  The thing is that many of these complaints seem more about resistance to change than anything, the Start Menu alone for example – that had been made slightly redundant in Windows 7 by the ability to dock apps to the taskbar, a lot of people ran apps by hitting the Start button on the keyboard and typing the name of the app – this is how Windows 8’s start screen works by default, the only thing that’s changed is, in effect, the size of the menu which is now a screen full of information.

I remember the last time Microsoft radically changed how Windows worked – Windows 95.  The same arguments came out, “how can this Start menu replace Program Manager, how will you find programs”, “look at how much screen space the “taskbar” takes up”, “why do you press Start to shut down the computer, that’s stupid” and so on.  Ironically the new Start Screen reminds me of the old Windows 3.1 way of working more.

The flat tiled interface reflects how computers are being more familiar and how they’re used, thanks to the modern web’s design users no longer need the reassurance of buttons that look like real objects simply an area of a different colour or a label to indicate an action.  Yes Microsoft is designing to appeal to consumers but these days it has to, more computer users than ever are home users and Apple have been doing the same simplification to target the same market for years.  The difference is that whereas Apple tries to lock down parts of its operating systems so that non-technical users can’t do anything to affect the “user experience” i.e. make the product look slow or faulty, Microsoft and Google still allow tweaking if that’s your thing.

We’re seeing similar arguments about the new Xbox which is being turned into a media hub for the home rather than just a games console, there are complaints about its appearance and so on.  Many of the complainers in both cases simply don’t like the idea that the PC and the Xbox are no longer theirs, the domain of the gamers and the techies, no longer mysterious to consumers.  There’s a side issue to this feeling of ownership over an area of technology – the sometime horrific online treatment of women who play games by male gamers who think it’s not a “girl thing”, but that’s for another article.

The reasons for this change were to embrace emerging technology and ways of using it, tablets are more convenient for casual computer users so Windows needs to encompass that, though they have been trying to accomplish this for a long time without the hardware being up to the challenge.  Secondly they wanted to present a consistent look and feel across all devices so users only have to learn once, and can use the same apps on all devices and share information across them all too, once more applications start using the new interface it will become ever more familiar and usable.  Lastly the idea of the live tiles is down to this “information age” where people want all their appointments, reminders, Facebook and Twitter updates and so on up front and ready for them.  Immediacy is the key these days and Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 priorities this information while still doing so in an attractive way.

Unfortunately for the doomsayers Windows 8 has sold well, it has recieved much acclaim, people do like it because it feels like an appliance, like their phone and not like a computer as such, it reduces the fear of “pressing something and deleting everything” in inexperienced users, it’s easier to use – though admittedly you still need to learn how to use it, like anything else to a degree.

Personally I don’t need all this information in my face as soon as I switch on my PC, tablet or phone so I don’t need Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8 but if my PC came with it then I’d happily use it – and yes I have tried it and I do like it.  My PC, phone and tablet all have minimal interfaces, Windows 7, Android 4, this was why I chose the Sony phone because the default homescreen is relatively scarce with just a few icons and a clock, same with the Nexus 7.  It suits the way I work with my technology but that doesn’t suit everybody.  With Windows 8 Microsoft took a brave decision to give consumers something that would suit them but didn’t suit everyone either but at least it has listened to those complaints and is tweaking it in an update due in the next couple of months to give those who don’t need or want the live tiles more control, and a start menu of sorts.

Change is inevitable for progress, sometimes it’s difficult but one day you look back to what came before and think “how did we ever make do with that?”

Tech Camp

English: Gordale Scar Camp Site near Gordale S...

English: Gordale Scar Camp Site near Gordale Scar in the Yorkshire Dales (North Yorkshire), United Kingdom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For Ray Mears camping would be a tarp tied between a few trees somewhere in the outback but in this country many campers have moved on from simple pleasures of the outdoors.  A campsite once consisted of a field devoid of cowshit, then came toilet blocks and shower rooms to de-grime yourself after a satisfying slog across the moors or up a mountain and back.  Even then you’d retire to your tent, fire up the camping stove for some simple tinned beans and sausage or a dehydrated meal in a foil bag, maybe even sit around a campfire if it was allowed and drink a few beers or mugs of tea, look up at the stars and contemplate life, or tell a few stories or jokes.

Now though campsites are all teched up and I’m not in any way against that.  If you can’t bear to be completely off-grid there are some that have electrical hook-ups for tents as well as caravans and motorhomes, if you don’t have that then you can always get a solar charger for your phone and tablet, in the future kinetic chargers will make use of your daily hikes to juice your kit.  Many sites have good wireless broadband internet so you’ll never miss your favourite tv, can check your emails and continue to update the world on how your holiday’s going via Twitter and Facebook.  I recently visited Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales and on the campsite there I was able to read the news via my AP news app on my Nexus 7, write notes for this blog on my tablet and netbook (yes, I’m the one who still uses one, because it’s portable and cheap) and send my envious friends at home a picture of the beautiful weather and scenery.  My clever little tablet even added my exact GPS coordinates to the notes I added in Evernote.

If you can bear to take with you only your personal tech life and leave the work with an Out of Office notification then it’s the best of both worlds – the great outdoors when the weather’s nice combined with the comforting glow of the internet, or Angry Birds when it’s raining, or when you’re sat sipping a beer, listening to streamed music while reading articles as the sun sets.  As I was for that all too brief week.

The Needs for Bees

bee eating

bee eating (Photo credit: acidpix)

It is said that if you ask the question “where does our food come from?” today you’ll get the answer “the supermarket” more often than not and it’s true that many people are increasingly further along the supply chain from the raw produce than ever before – I am guilty of this myself, for convenience’s sake I eat much frozen and processed foods and it would be easy to not realise which animal beef comes from or that potatoes are grown in the ground or peas are pulled from one natural packet before being shoved into an artificial one.

The thing is that so much of our food still relies on nature to help in its production, despite irrigation systems, spray-on pesticides and nutrients.  Sometimes an apparently insignificant change in nature can have catastrophic implications that science can’t (yet) get round effectively – the most extreme example of this effect on our food being the novel The Death of Grass by John Christopher in which a devastating plant virus wipes out all species of grasses – including wheat leaving us without cereal crops for either us or our livestock to eat with the result of a rapid breakdown of society to a barbarous state of desperation for survival.

But it’s just science fiction isn’t it, we’re ok.  Aren’t we?  Well, to a point.  Bees are one of the main pollinators of plants, we need them in order to grow our food crops as well as gardens full of pretty flowers but they have been, across the world, in decline in recent years and scientists don’t fully know why.  It is thought that if we lost the bees the knock on effect would be the loss of up to a third of our regular diet. 

Various theories have been put forward such as mites like the tracheal mites that killed off all native British bees during World War I – which needed to be replaced by imported Dutch and Italian bees.   It is also theorised that, ironically, pesticides and other chemicals used to protect the crops the bees are pollinating are responsible.

So what can be done?  Well another possible contributing factor is that people are either removing wild flower areas that supported the bees or concreting over gardens and having low-maintenance patios and so on that have no flowers at all or only plants that are no use to bees whatsoever.  So while science tries to find out why the decline is happening and the debate over pesticides rumbles on consider how that humble bee sitting on your windowsill ultimately affects your life, it’s not as insignificant as it may seem.  There are lots of posts on Facebook at the moment advising helping out struggling bees with drops of sugar-water and more importantly the planting of bee-friendly plants.

At the front of our factory is an area that hadn’t been cleared of wild plants and flowers for some time and as I was making a mug of tea the other day I noticed it was a hive of bee activity, so to speak, so we’re doing our bit, in a tiny way.

Format This

English: 8-inch, 5,25-inch, and 3,5-inch flopp...

English: 8-inch, 5,25-inch, and 3,5-inch floppy disks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people reading this may have at some point wondered why the hard drive in their computer is the C: drive, not A or B, not the first but third.  The answer of course is obsolescence, not planned but natural as technology has progressed.

I remember computers at school where the whole front of what would today be considered a desktop computer was just a pair of floppy disk drives, 5 1/4″ drives they were at the time, flat black plastic flexible squares that needed to be handled with care and would probably today just about hold a single grainy picture from a basic cameraphone.  I also remember the rise of 3 1/2″ floppy disks, the 1.44Mb disks which were the HD of their day – High Density that was.  These were the contents of the now abandoned A: and B: drives.   The problems of getting Windows 3.0 to read a new-fangled CD-ROM drive is a story for another time.

The thing is that today if I wanted to read something from one of these 5 1/4″ disks it would be difficult, if not impossible.  You can still buy external drives to read 3 1/2″ disks but how long before they’re gone too?  Admittedly much of the information I still have on these old disks is past its prime and most of the really important stuff I still have on my laptop today but some of it would be as good as gone forever if I didn’t transfer it to today’s media.  Even today’s storage has a finite life; hard drives die, home-burned CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs don’t last forever although new developments are on the horizon that claim to make disks that last for 1,000 years – we’ll see, or rather we won’t, but someone on a future edition of Time Team will and they’ll laugh at our clothes and feeble social networks and search engines.

Or will they?  The other problem with that old data on floppy disks is whether we have something to read it with.  Years ago we had a plethora of different wordprocessor file formats, spreadsheet formats, image formats and some of them, like JustWrite are as illegible to Microsoft Word today as Spanish is to me.  Qué?   Unless someone bothers to devise a universal convertor to rescue all these obscure file formats then the data is doomed.

I still have the ability to install the old software and manually copy over the text to LibreOffice which I use because it uses what has to be the future of our data – standardised formats and structures.  Many software packages still use proprietary formats for the raw data but can output a sharable and standard format – like JPEG images or MP4 video, whilst many office packages are moving to open standards like the Open Document Format which should extend the amount of time our letters and journals, notes and novels remain readable.  Then there’s the cloud again, services like Google Docs, Flickr, Facebook or Evernote storing data for you without needing to worry about file formats.  As long as the host is still there and the internet is still there your data could exist indefinitely if your account is passed down with the inheritance when you leave for the cloud yourself.

Which is a sobering thought, better get the to do list finished or it could become a puzzling historical artefact.

Too Good To Be True?

Texting Emoji

Texting Emoji (Photo credit: IntelFreePress)

So I received a text from my mobile network, it’s an offer to entice me to buy a new phone.  It’s the next phone up in the range from the one I have and if I was to wander down to my local network shop and buy it right now, and top up with £20 I’d get a FREE Bluetooth speaker worth £70.  Seventy pounds, yes, really.  The phone alone costs £79!

Immediately I thought, that’s good, tempting, I could take the old phone to Cash Converters.  It’s all to easy to just go ahead and get the deal but as I do I thought, hang on is that really a good deal?  Via the web I found that the phone doesn’t look as nice as the one I have, the screen is only a smidge larger, the processor only a tad faster, the memory only a whisper bigger and the version of Android only a decimal point newer.

On top of that the FREE speaker can be bought on Amazon for £30.  Which is £70 less than the total cost of the new phone.

It’s easy to be caught in the headlights of a speeding special offer but it’s best to leap aside and have a good look at it as it goes by, think “do I really need this” and if not watch it recede into the distance, maybe wait for the next one.  Which won’t be far behind, inevitably.

Silent Running

English: Polish transistor radio Eltra Izabell...

English: Polish transistor radio Eltra Izabella Polski: Radio Izabella produkcji Eltry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time there was a happy, cheery workshop where everyone worked happily accompanied by the sound of their local radio station.  They hummed along to the songs, occasionally danced, laughed at jokes, discussed the news, listened to the cricket.  Then the man from PRS for Music came along and told the boss that he’d have to pay a fee because so many people listening to one radio counted as a public performance, especially as people outside might conceivably be able to hear it too and therefore the artists should be recompensed for this concert that they weren’t being paid to perform.  So the boss told the workers to take the radio home because he wasn’t prepared to pay for them to listen to music.  And from then on the workshop was quiet and sullen, less chatting, less laughing and the workers felt less happy and less motivated to work.  The artists still received their royalties from the radio station but the workers lost something important.  Still they worked accompanied by only the sound of machines, telephones, keyboard clatter or dripping taps, quiet drudgery occasionally punctuated by a bit of chatter.

This is the sorry tale repeated across the country.  I’m a content creator, not just on this blog but my photos and other works, and as such I appreciate the importance of copyright protection, but the issue of Music Licences is ridiculous.  Having a radio at work isn’t depriving artists of anything, it’s not like in the absence of a radio the workers would all go out and buy MP3 players and load them with every song ever recorded and likely to be played on local radio.

The actual rules class workplaces as “public places” as far as their interpretation of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Acts 1988 goes – in their words (this extract being “fair use”, by the way)   “In UK copyright law, a person wishing to play copyright music in public will generally require the consent (or licence) of the copyright owner before doing so. ‘In public’ means, broadly speaking, to an audience outside of his/her domestic or home circle. If the person does not obtain the required licence they may risk infringing copyright.”  The words “broadly speaking” are important, I feel their reach is too broad.

The rules exempt the communal areas of blocks of flats for example which could easily encompass a recreation area which could seat thirty or forty people listening to the same radio broadcast, or an album, wouldn’t that constitute more of a public performance than ten mechanics in a garage?  Similarly listening to music in a car is exempted but if you open the window wouldn’t anyone outside constitute an audience – “[An Artist’s] audience includes anyone listening to their music outside the domestic circle or home life.”  Will PRS for Music soon have roadside patrols?

At the end of the day the radio station will still pay to broadcast the music, they pay the same whether those ten mechanics are listening at work, whether the customers can hear it or whether all of them were listening individually at home.  PRS for Music may say that people are listening to music for free and not buying it, the same argument as piracy, but it’s not free, the broadcast has been paid for already and there is even the possibility that having heard a song at work that they might not hear otherwise because they don’t listen to the radio at home someone might go out and buy the album themselves.  Admittedly if someone buys an album and plays it at work then that’s more in line with PRS for Music’s description of a public performance but a radio isn’t in my opinion.

Background music and chat has been shown to improve mood, improve staff interactions, it can inspire creativity and boost productivity, it makes people feel good.  But like so much these days the cost of feeling good in this case is financial.

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The Colour of Fashion

Blue ice

Blue ice (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

When is pastel blue not pastel blue?

When its the colour of a pair of skinny jeans that you’re trying to sell to men and you don’t want them to sound “feminine”.  The colour when applied to mens jeans is “Ice Blue” or “Ice Green”.

Ice.  Green.  Since when has ice been green?  Yellow snow maybe.

But yes, ice is cool.  Literally.  Ice, Ice , Baby, c’mon.  Yes, showing my age there.  Anyway, I am reliably informed by the link suggestions on the side of my WordPress screen that such coloured jeans are the new trend, it’s true, see the links below.   And the colours are not pastel, they’re ice.

This is the odd thing about clothing manufacturers, who do they ask when they’re conducting market research, it certainly isn’t me.  Take outdoor clothing, when it comes to mens’ garments the colour choice is boring to say the least – bright red, bright blue, green, navy blue and black typically.  You see the occasional bright green jacket and sometimes orange ones that just look like safety jackets or yellow ones that make you look like the Jolly Fisherman.  You see a purple one, a turquoise or teal one, a tasteful green or a red other than signal red and it turns out to be a womans’ jacket.  The only exceptions tend to be very expensive which is perhaps the crux of the matter and returns us to the fashion jeans – the only companies willing to take the risk on something different and individual in mens clothes are the ones with the highest price tags and exclusivity as a feature.

Update:  since writing this I have found a lovely almost teal blue winter jacket from Trespass at Winfields at Garforth near Leeds which was a bargain, sometimes you just have to be patient and travel to find what you want.