Archive | November, 2012

Microsoft Surface review

25 Nov

I spent much time in the days leading up to purchase of a Microsoft Surface reading all the reviews of it I could find on the net. Having had it for two weeks I thought I’d post my own initial impressions.

Assessments of the Surface out there are quite broad in range but coalesce around the notion: “great hardware but lacking in decent apps”.  I would say: “great hardware and touch interface but lacking in decent apps”.

Starting with the positive, the machine itself is beautifully made. If it were a meal, Michel Roux Jr might roll it around in his mouth with pleasure, pondering his positive judgement to thrill the neophyte chef. The case is made from a durable, heavy duty magnesium alloy. Its appearance is unremarkable though its sheen is markable (with fingerprints); however the build quality is excellent in every way. Being quite a bit bigger than an iPad it’s heavier too, but perhaps only slightly. The Touch Cover keyboard I bought with it is white. Although advertised in many colours, the options appear at the moment to be restricted to black, white and maybe cyan but no doubt this will soon change. It neatly doubles as keyboard and dust cover. You can keep it attached permanently, folding it back when you just want to use the touch interface, or detach it easily with a flick of the wrist. The rather excellent video advertising the Surface on TV has young folk cavorting around snapping the thing on and off with great panache and it’s hard to resist clicking it on and off just for fun.

It comes packaged neatly though not as superbly as an Apple product. I have four iPhone boxes stored under this desk, feeling reluctant to throw them way as they are objets d’art in themselves. The Touch Cover keyboard came in an inexplicably large box – bigger than the box for the Surface itself. When you switch on, going through the setup procedure is fairly painless. You have to create a Microsoft account which then ‘syncs’ (there must be several syncing puns lurking somewhere beneath the Surface) with your emails, Facebook, Twitter etc. accounts. This is a great attraction to me as I spend a lot of time slavishly checking these media to see if anyone has responded to my plaintive laments, gripes and observations.

The thing I like most about the Surface is surfing. Ah, suddenly I get the name-pun. It really is a joy to swipe and tap your way through apps and the internet. Once you learn the gestures and features of Windows 8, it competes very well, nay perhaps outdoes, the iPad iOS. Microsoft have given a lot of thought to the way people actually do things and made these easier. It isn’t without learning curve mind you. When you are presented in Internet Explorer 10 with a full-screen view of a web page with no visible navigation icons, it can be disconcerting. (By the way, you swipe down from the top to navigate).

Now for the bad bits. I use Skype to contact my children in the UK and US but the Skype app in Windows 8 doesn’t show them my image. This is bad: the web cam, though working in the Skype test area, gets turned off in an actual call. OK, maybe I am missing something, but after spending about 1/2 hour trawling forums etc. for an answer without success, I definitely chalk this down as a failure. And it isn’t only Skype; other Win 8 apps just don’t seem as fully featured and de-bugged as their Win 7 counterparts. One tip is to use the web versions of apps: Facebook, WordPress (e.g. for this blog), Twitter and the like can all be pinned to the Start Screen and accessed just as easily as apps, working perfectly well.

This brings me on to gripe number 2, regarding the schizophrenic nature of the Windows 8 system. Win 7, and its predecessors back as far as Win 95, all had a Start menu and a desktop. Windows 8 has transformed the Start menu into the Start Screen, with its distinctive Tiles. Now Microsoft’s reasoning behind this appears to have various threads. On the competitive/commercial front, MS wants to compete with Apple and Google, to whom it has lost much of its commercial dominance in recent years. In order to do this it needed an ‘ecosystem’ of apps, devices and operating systems that integrate between themselves and with the ‘cloud’, that amorphous mass of storage capacity hosted on server farms throughout the world which, apart from being a socio-political issue of enormous international importance given the extent to which we all now rely on it, actually makes a lot of things very much more convenient. Windows 8 therefore needs to work well on touch-screens which, since the iPad and iPhone, have become ubiquitous and have taken over in many ways from the keyboard/mouse combo for PCs and buttons for phones. For touch, big tiles are good but tiny menus and buttons are bad.

Also, Microsoft wants to be on the app revenue bandwagon. Until recently programmes were sold, expensively, to do things on desktop PCs. Now apps are sold, cheaply, to do things on tablets and phones. Microsoft needs to have a way to exploit this and the Windows Store is it, but not all the programmers in the world working together could have re-written all the traditional Windows programmes to be touch-friendly apps. So Microsoft needed to perpetuate the desktop as a way to run programmes. This leaves the user with a curious interface disconnect, where the ‘Desktop’ is another tile on the touch interface. When you tap it, you are sent to a familiar if neutered version of the old desktop, with the Start menu missing. Remember, the Start menu is now the Start screen, and…oh I give up. For the main PC version of Windows 8, you can download a utility that will replicate the Start menu and have Windows boot to the desktop by default. I am not sure if this is available for the ‘RT’ variant of Win 8 on the Surface. One thing that is certain for RT/Surface users is that no traditional desktop programmes at all can be installed, meaning that you are largely restricted to the App Store with its small, if growing, collection of sometimes half-baked apps. There is however a special version of MS Office 2013 installed on the Surface for free, which is a great thing.

It tickles me that we seem to have gone back to the wonderful world of Windows 3.11. I disliked the Start menu when it first came out in Win 95: I just didn’t know what to do, being used to double-clicking Win 3.11 er… well… Tiles, to get programmes started. Plus ca change , plus c’est la meme chose.

In the last two weeks I have been both frustrated and pleased by the Surface but do love it.  After all, it cost 500 quid so I’m bound to make an effort. And what love comes ever without effort? This is the attitude I would encourage in every impatient consumer, every hasty critic: effort is needed if we are to reap the benefits of anything. A little like a spouse, this beauty is challenging to live with but hard to live without. You must learn its special ways, devote time to working with it on its own terms; then it may turn out to be a great companion.

Surfacing on a messy desk

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Alexandra Dariescu at Freshwater

18 Nov

On Saturday 9th November 2012, Romanian concert pianist Alexandra Dariescu returned to Freshwater, Isle of Wight to perform at the Memorial Hall. Her programme included Beethoven, Scarlatti, Schumann and Chopin, so covering three different musical periods and styles. The pieces chosen were all demanding, underlining Ms Dariescu’s status as a highly accomplished pianist.

The concert was arranged by the West Wight Arts Association and the audience was comprised mainly of persons on average about a third as old as some of the pieces performed. In contrast, the young pianist, resplendent in a scintillating dress and sporting a genuine smile, exuded youth and energy, both applied to good effect in the opening Beethoven Sonata No 6 in F major Op 10 No. 2, an early piece and the shortest of the early sonatas. The work displayed Beethoven’s sense of fun as well as his virtuosity as a performer. Ms Dariescu responded accordingly, impressing particularly during the complex passages in the 3rd (Presto) movement.

This was followed by a most refined and emotionally rich rendering of a Scarlatti Sonata in F minor; one apparently of 20 in that key out of a mind-boggling corpus of 555 keyboard sonatas. For me this was the highlight of the concert, revealing a touching, subtle beauty in what is a seemingly simple musical form. The pianist took our aesthetic sensibilities on a meaningful, personal journey. I simply did not realise that Scarlatti could sound like this: not at all repetitive but with each recurring phrase treated differently, the pianist creating a most satisfying experience. It called to mind Benjamin Grosvenor’s treatment of a Bach Partita at a recent concert; perhaps experimental but inventive and capable of holding the interest of younger audiences (of which more later in this blog).

The last piece before the interval was Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op 12. A contemporary and friend of Chopin and a promoter of Beethoven, one can perhaps discern influences of both in this work. The Fantasiestücke were for me difficult to follow, albeit full of beautiful sounds. Considering the complexity of the composer’s mind and the tragedies in his personal life it is perhaps not surprising that at times the force of the musical ideas tumbling over one another seem to overwhelm the basic structure. That said, Ms Dariescu’s talent and accomplishment were more than up to the task of performing this work with panache and confidence.

After the interval, during which, inexplicably, someone thought it appropriate to hold a raffle, the prizes arrayed beneath the glorious Steinway like cheap gifts around a Christmas tree, Ms Dariescu performed the entire Chopin 24 Preludes Op 28. She did this with complete success and, despite her relative youth, a mature understanding of the wonderfully broad range of musical themes that the composer explored during his ill-fated sojourn in Mallorca in the winter of 1838-39. As with Schumann, the ideas are diverse and complex but in the hands of the Polish master they are never out of control, always underpinned by a solid structure and possessed of an outstanding integrity, simplicity and power to affect the hearts of people of every kind. Performing all 24 Preludes must be a formidable task for any pianist but Ms Dariescu never flagged and completed the final Allegro Appassionato with a powerful, triumphant flourish down to the low, low D. Cannon in flowers indeed.

In summary, Alexandra Dariescu is a formidable talent and a very watchable performer. Her grace and presence at the piano are pleasing; her skill and mastery undoubted, her resourcefulness in the conveying of refined musical effects impressive. At the end of her performance the applause was warm and animated, to the extent possible among the ageing contingent present. Had knee and hip joints permitted, a standing ovation would have occurred but a vigorous stamping of feet sufficed.

Humour aside, I did wonder how the West Wight Arts Association is going to reach out to a younger audience for this kind of priceless musical experience. The ambience of the concert and venue had a bit too much of the Derby and Joan club and not enough excitement and sense of occasion. This was not helped by a 5-minute selling job at the beginning about upcoming events; a surprise call for a round of applause for the secretary or some such official of whom I and no doubt many others knew nothing; the interval raffle and the disorganised queues for refreshments and CD sales. The venue itself is ideally equipped for intimate concerts of this kind but a bit more imagination in pleasing the paying customers and setting an appropriate tone might widen the appeal.

LINKS:

West Wight Arts Association: http://www.west-wight-arts.co.uk/

Alexandra Dariescu at Freshwater

13 Nov

On Saturday 9th November 2012, Romanian concert pianist Alexandra Dariescu returned to Freshwater, Isle of Wight to perform at the Memorial Hall. Her programme included Beethoven, Scarlatti, Schumann and Chopin, so covering three different musical periods and styles. The pieces chosen were all demanding, underlining Ms Dariescu’s status as a highly accomplished pianist.

The concert was arranged by the West Wight Arts Association and the audience was comprised mainly of persons on average about a third as old as some of the pieces performed. In contrast, the young pianist, resplendent in a scintillating dress and sporting a genuine smile, exuded youth and energy, both applied to good effect in the opening Beethoven Sonata No 6 in F major Op 10 No. 2, an early piece and the shortest of the early sonatas. The work displayed Beethoven’s sense of fun as well as his virtuosity as a performer. Ms Dariescu responded accordingly, impressing particularly during the complex passages in the 3rd (Presto) movement.

This was followed by a most refined and emotionally rich rendering of a Scarlatti Sonata in F minor; one apparently of 20 in that key out of a mind-boggling corpus of 555 keyboard sonatas. For me this was the highlight of the concert, revealing a touching, subtle beauty in what is a seemingly simple musical form. The pianist took our aesthetic sensibilities on a meaningful, personal journey. I simply did not realise that Scarlatti could sound like this: not at all repetitive but with each recurring phrase treated differently, the pianist creating a most satisfying experience. It called to mind Benjamin Grosvenor’s treatment of a Bach Partita at a recent concert; perhaps experimental but inventive and capable of holding the interest of younger audiences (of which more later in this blog).

The last piece before the interval was Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op 12. A contemporary and friend of Chopin and a promoter of Beethoven, one can perhaps discern influences of both in this work. The Fantasiestücke were for me difficult to follow, albeit full of beautiful sounds. Considering the complexity of the composer’s mind and the tragedies in his personal life it is perhaps not surprising that at times the force of the musical ideas tumbling over one another seem to overwhelm the basic structure. That said, Ms Dariescu’s talent and accomplishment were more than up to the task of performing this work with panache and confidence.

After the interval, during which, inexplicably, someone thought it appropriate to hold a raffle, the prizes arrayed beneath the glorious Steinway like cheap gifts around a Christmas tree, Ms Dariescu performed the entire Chopin 24 Preludes Op 28. She did this with complete success and, despite her relative youth, a mature understanding of the wonderfully broad range of musical themes that the composer explored during his ill-fated sojourn in Mallorca in the winter of 1838-39. As with Schumann, the ideas are diverse and complex but in the hands of the Polish master they are never out of control, always underpinned by a solid structure and possessed of an outstanding integrity, simplicity and power to affect the hearts of people of every kind. Performing all 24 Preludes must be a formidable task for any pianist but Ms Dariescu never flagged and completed the final Allegro Appassionato with a powerful, triumphant flourish down to the low, low D. Cannon in flowers indeed.

In summary, Alexandra Dariescu is a formidable talent and a very watchable performer. Her grace and presence at the piano are pleasing; her skill and mastery undoubted, her resourcefulness in the conveying of refined musical effects impressive. At the end of her performance the applause was warm and animated, to the extent possible among the ageing contingent present. Had knee and hip joints permitted, a standing ovation would have occurred but a vigorous stamping of feet sufficed.

Humour aside, I did wonder how the West Wight Arts Association is going to reach out to a younger audience for this kind of priceless musical experience. The ambience of the concert and venue had a bit too much of the Derby and Joan club and not enough excitement and sense of occasion. This was not helped by a 5-minute selling job at the beginning about upcoming events; a surprise call for a round of applause for the secretary or some such official of whom I and no doubt many others knew nothing; the interval raffle and the disorganised queues for refreshments and CD sales. The venue itself is ideally equipped for intimate concerts of this kind but a bit more imagination in pleasing the paying customers and setting an appropriate tone might widen the appeal.

LINKS:

West Wight Arts Association: http://www.west-wight-arts.co.uk/

Death, taxes and the life of the soul

1 Nov

Some years ago I went on a superb course called ‘Reflections on the Life of the Spirit’ run by the Baha’i Community (www.bahai.org.uk).

In it, participants are encouraged to discover and explore a spiritual or mystical side to their lives by studying writings of the Baha’i Faith. The goal is not to indoctrinate but to equip; you aren’t required to join anything. The premise is that human nature is multi-faceted: more than biological, psychological or emotional, we are spiritual beings too. And this doesn’t mean airy-fairy superstition, nor becoming a mindless drone following some daft comfort-blanket rituals, but recognizing and developing a whole range of higher qualities in ourselves like love and selflessness. Highly recommended.

One thing I learned from it was that every human being is really responsible for their own goodness or badness. And that brings me on to the economic crisis (all paths seem to lead there eventually). Here’s a spiritual, or moral question: if you are, shall we say, a banker who trousers a mountain of cash by milking the money markets, are you behaving more badly than a middle-class property speculator who makes a fast buck buying and selling houses in a bubble? Is your wrongdoing essentially greater than that of a call centre operative who preys on the vulnerable to flog electricity, gym passes: you name it…

Many would argue that it’s worse to lend irresponsibly as a banker than to borrow greedily as a baker. I’m not sure about that: although it’s quantitatively worse, it it qualitatively any different? Both, if not actively crooked, are damaging themselves inwardly. They may be using pseudo-moral justifications: “We are spreading wealth and improving standards of living”; or “we are just trying to make ends meet”. But that just obscures the truth.

It’s something that worries me a lot, seeing the super-storm of opprobrium that swirls around the bankers, who end up being the Guys at the top of our moral bonfire, blamed for the whole of the financial crisis. What then of the doctor, the lawyer, the plumber who made a few £K speculating in property, time-share or buy-to-let; or treated themselves to a Merc, a Beamer or even a Nissan Micra? (the latest ones are quite nice actually). At the very lowest end of the scale of poverty we might make more allowances, but here’s the point: how does all this affect the inner health of the person doing it? That is surely measured in relative terms, both from the victim’s perspective and in terms of the effect on one’s own soul.

In the end, the spiritual malaise we are suffering from underpins the economic one. We need a massive injection of both spiritual and material capital invested in the development of the soul; a relaxing of the costs of human cooperation and collaboration; a reduction in the red tape of prejudice and a clearly set out programme of growth for the human spirit.

Otherwise, a third certainty can be added to death and taxes: the current financial crash will be succeeded by another, more severe one.