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Posts Tagged: Geek

Breaking Windows

Thursday 7th June 2012

Sometime this year (I think), Microsoft will release Windows 8. I’ve just been reading an article from the Windows 8 development blog, about how the design team has changed the user interface for the new release. It’s interesting reading; mostly because the design for the Windows 8 UI currently seems to be a complete mess, so it’s interesting to see the justification.

Here is basically what they’re doing. They’ve noticed that touchscreen tablets and phones are quite popular, so they’re trying to build more touch capability into Windows. Except they’ve done more than that; they’ve designed this new interface – Metro UI – specifically for touchscreen devices. And to be fair, it basically looks great; a tablet with that UI could easily be as good as the iPad, if it had the right hardware. But they’ve made Metro the default UI, for everything. If you have a desktop PC with one (or more) big non-touchscreen monitor, then if you upgrade to Windows 8 you’ll be presented with the same interface as if you’re using a Win8 touchscreen tablet. You’ll have to click an icon to get back to the desktop, and even then the new UI replaces the start menu. So if you want to launch a program, you’ll press the start button and the new interface will open in fullscreen.

I’ve not used the latest version of Windows 8, so it might be better now. But when they released the first beta version to the public a few months ago, I installed it onto a non-touch laptop. My thought was that it’s pretty much unusable. It’s perfectly stable, don’t get me wrong. But they’ve moved everything around, hidden basic stuff (e.g. turning the computer off), and basically messed it up. I think that if I bought a new computer that came with Win 8, it wouldn’t take me long before I gave up and “downgraded” to Win 7 (quotes because it just isn’t a downgrade; Windows 7 is a great OS, much better than 8).

I genuinely don’t understand why Microsoft are going down this route. No-one needs or wants a tablet that can do everything a desktop can, and using an interface developed for touchscreens on a non-touch PC is inherently annoying. And also, touch isn’t always useful; do you really want to be reaching across your desk to touch your display?

I can understand an argument for there being a degree of interoperability; for the two types of system to be able to talk to each other, and easily share files. That’s pretty much a given. But different types of machines – touch versus non-touch, mobile vs non-mobile – really place different requirements for the UI.

Microsoft seem to think touch is the future. I think they’re right, for some cases. I think tablet computers like the iPad (although actually, at the moment it’s just the iPad) could work really well as main computers for a large number of people. I use my iPad a lot (right now, for instance!), and there are really only specific instances where I actually need to use a proper computer. I think Microsoft think that too, hence why they’ve put so much emphasis on Metro.

But, if that’s the case, then people will be using devices that look very different to the computer they use today. And as I’ve mentioned, those devices are designed to be used in very different ways, so the UIs need to be designed differently to cater for that. The backend of a tablet and PC OS might look similar, but there’s no need to require the same interface on both. That is, Microsoft could design one version of Windows, but with two very different interfaces, depending on the device it’s installed on; the difference being that you only install and use one type of interface, rather than having both and flitting between the two. That’d be a bit messy (they should start their tablet/mobile OS afresh, like Apple did with iOS… and like Microsoft have already done with Windows Phone), but it’d possibly be a cost-effective way to provide software to various classes of device, and maintain interoperability between the two.

As it is, Windows 8 is basically a complete mess. If they release it like this, I reckon it’ll get a terrible reception, even worse than Vista got (Vista was actually a pretty decent OS, the problems were mostly not Microsoft’s fault). If that happens, I can only guess as to what’ll happen to Microsoft. Bad things, probably.

Posted In: GeekTechnology Tagged: | No Comments

“Foolproof, and incapable of error”

Saturday 21st January 2012

Whilst I was thinking about and writing the previous post, a couple of extra things came to mind which I couldn’t really fit into the post. So I thought I might as well do a follow-up with a couple of extra observations. I did intend to write this earlier, but partly I was busy (more on that in a following post) and mostly I just didn’t get around to it.

1) The previous post was not so much about aeroplanes, but more about interfaces in general. Be that with machinery like a plane, or a device like a phone, or even infrastructure or services. And it struck me that one of the few organisations that consistently manages to create things with great interfaces is Apple. Not so much with their computers (I’m really not a big fan of MacOS, probably because I’m more used to Windows), but their iOS devices (iPhones and iPads) are really good examples of things which simplify tasks through good interface design.

It strikes me that if the computing business ever starts to go slack (!), Apple could do a good business out of consultancy; imagine if they applied their UI design skills to things other than making iPhones and iPads. This isn’t as daft as it sounds; some ex-Apple employees recently set up a business to make a better thermostat. That’s a specific example of someone applying the Apple approach to interfaces to a different type of product, and I’m sure there are other things which would benefit from the same approach.

2) For some reason, I also started thinking about 2001: A Space Odyssey (spoilers follow. Although, it’s a 40-odd year old book/film, so I guess most people at least vaguely know the plot. If you don’t, then go read the book and watch the film. They’re classics). The first – obvious – point is that a lot of the interfaces in that film do appear to tend towards simplicity. There’s loads of little things: the video phone booth that Dr Floyd uses near the start of the film, the tablets that Bowman and Poole use on Discovery, all the spaceship status screens look like they’re intended to be simple, and of course there’s HAL9000

On the topic of HAL, it occurred that his demise is pretty relevant too. HAL was programmed to help the crew, to convey information to them about Discovery and about the status of the mission. But before the crew left Earth the parameters of the mission were changed; this was secret, and the crew were not to be told until Discovery reached Jupiter. As the central computer, HAL knew the real purpose of the mission, but was not allowed to tell the crew. He was being asked to hide information, to lie. This ran counter to HAL’s programming – he was designed to give information, not to hide it – and because of that conflict he perceived there to be a problem. Which he then set out to rectify…

The point is, HAL failed because the people who defined his tasks for the mission did so incorrectly. The computer carried out its tasks as it saw best, but those tasks were in conflict with each other. And so the failure of the mission was the result of misuse of the computer. Now obviously the details in this and in the example in the previous post are very different, but in general, it’s the same fault: the computers behaved exactly as they were asked, the error arose from the way people were trying to use them.

And, really, how clever is that? That 40 years ago, people were thinking about how we’ll be using these ultra-sophisticated computers, and were (in a very broad sense) predicting some of the problems that we’re starting to see. Just makes me realise how great a job Clarke (and Kubrick, I think) did in writing that story, and how many ideas they’ve managed to pack into it. I’ve read the book many times already, but I really need to re-watch the film.

Posted In: GeekMoviesTechnology Tagged: | No Comments

The Uncertain Eye

Tuesday 28th June 2011

As I was watching the match last night between Nadal and Del Potro, I started to wonder just how accurate the Hawk-Eye system is. Turns out that Hawk-Eye reckon that the average error of the system is 3.6mm. Which is actually pretty good, but is it good enough?

For most calls, yes, probably. When it’s clear that the ball landed on or off the line, the system is probably adequate; a few millimetres won’t change the call. But we often see it showing really close calls, where a few millimetres would make a difference. But as far as I can tell, in those cases the system is still trusted, the uncertainty of the measurement isn’t taken into account. Which seems a bit bizarre, really.

So given that for close calls Hawk-Eye isn’t accurate enough, should it be trusted as much as it is? Perhaps not. Or at the very least, the margin of error of the calculation should be displayed whenever the system is used.

On the Hawk-Eye website, there are several documents which look at controversial Hawk-Eye calls. For example, from the 2007 Wimbledon final where Hawk-Eye showed a shot to be in by 1mm (3.6mm uncertainty, remember), which looked from the camera to be out. Here’s a short clip:

The manufacturers recreated this shot and filmed it with high-speed cameras, to show that Hawk-Eye might not have been wrong in this instance. But that seems to me to be a bit backward; why not just use the high-speed cameras to check line calls in the matches? Then there would be a definitive record of what the ball actually did, rather than a back-calculated approximation of its movement.

Posted In: Geek Tagged: | 2 Comments

iPhone 4

Wednesday 14th July 2010

To be honest, I was fairly sure that I probably wouldn’t get an iPhone 4 on release day. I know that stock was really scarce (and indeed still is), and I really couldn’t be bothered with getting up uber-early in order to go queue outside a shop for one. But I thought it was still worth going to the shops at 9 o’clock, just to see. It’s not as if I had anything better to do!

Sure enough, the first couple of shops I visited had about 5 each, and they were sold by the time I got to them. But one of the sales assistants tipped me off that the local Best Buy (!) had a decent number in stock, so I went down there. There were about 20 people queueing outside the entrance, so I thought “why not? Can’t take too long” and joined the line. And about 5 minutes later, an employee walked the queue to ask us what version we wanted, and to put our names on the list to allocate us phones. Yay!

I was somewhat wrong about it not taking long though. It was taking an age for the sales people to process each order, so I still had an age to wait. I really didn’t think I’d be there for more than an hour, but in fact I ended up spending 2 or so hours in the queue, then another three quarters of an hour with the sales assistant actually buying the damn thing. Because of course, there were 4 assistants dealing with iPhone sales, and each sale was taking ages because O2 was initially taking ages to sort out upgrades and the like.

Anyway, 3 and a half hours after I set out to get one, I returned home with a shiny new iPhone. I’ve had it a few weeks now, so I’ve had a decent amount of time now to get used to it.

The phone I traded in to get this was an iPhone 3G. I’d had that for a while and I really liked it, but this is definitely a massive step ahead. The software is obviously mostly similar because it uses the same OS. That said, there are obviously new features to iOS 4 and some of those aren’t available to the 3G. Multitasking is the most obvious thing, and it works really well on the iPhone 4. I know it’s taken ages to come to the iPhone in comparison to other platforms, but one of the things I like about the iPhone platform is that once Apple implement a new feature, it works really well. The implementation on the iPhone may not be “real” multitasking, but it works well for the way most people use their phones, and that’s the main thing. For instance the new version of Spotify for iOS 4 is excellent, and runs really well in the background without noticeably slowing things down.

Also, this iPhone is much quicker than my 3G. For instance, I always found that the Spotify app would take forever to load on the 3G, and is pretty clunky to use too. On the new iPhone it opens pretty much immediately, and is extremely responsive when you navigate around the app. The camera is also much better. The 3G camera was ok, it was usable for most things (indeed, the picture in the header of this page was taken with my old iPhone), but it was always a bit hit and miss as to whether the pictures would be any good. The new camera is much better in this respect; even low-light pictures are pretty good. Oh, and it records 720p video, which looks pretty snazzy.

I’ve not tried FaceTime yet because I don’t know anyone else with one of these phones, but I’m pretty keen to give it a go.

This is all pretty much peripheral though, because in my opinion there is one thing which really sets this phone apart from anything else: the screen. It wouldn’t be exaggeration to say that it’s pretty much the best screen I’ve seen in any device. I can’t see the individual pixels unless I hold the phone about a 20mm from my face, so everything is incredibly smooth. Reading on the old phone used to tire my eyes after a while, but this is much more readable because the text is so much smoother. Oh, and it’s brilliant for watching videos on. HD videos from YouTube look really, really nice. In fact the other day I did a comparison with a 3GS, both showing the same video from YouTube, and it was surprising how much clearer the new phone is. Honestly, this thing has to be seen to be believed.

I would love an iPad with this screen… (but that’s probably quite a way away)

I also think that the phone looks absolutely gorgeous. Photos don’t do this thing justice, I reckon. It’s pretty understated, but quite classy. That said, it’s also pretty badly designed.

Mobile phones are portable. In the real world, they get exposed to a pretty hard life, and in fact it’s more than likely that the typical phone will be dropped several times over its lifetime. So good phone design would look good in 12 months time as it does when it’s new. It should be able to weather the inevitable scrapes and knocks. Glass screens are pretty unavoidable on phones like this, but this has a glass back too. You don’t need me to tell you that glass shatters, so this phone is pretty damn fragile. That’s bad design.

But there’s another problem, and this one is amazing. The aerials for the iPhone have been placed on the outside edge, in order to save space and move them outside the case. Good thinking? No. There’s a point on the bottom-left corner of the phone, which if touched causes the network signal to be severely attenuated. You can literally place your finger on this spot and watch the phone signal decrease. If you hold the phone naturally, it’s easy to inadvertently touch this part of the aerial and have this effect. There’s no excuse for this, it’s just really poor design, and could have been easily sidestepped by applying a transparent coating to the aerial.

Steve Jobs’ response of “just don’t hold it like that” is really unhelpful as well…

Anyway. These problems are mostly solved by a case, which is something I would get anyway (and that doesn’t in any way excuse Apple for shockingly poor design, it just means that it doesn’t affect me massively). So I really like the new iPhone. Unless you’re still tied into a contract for a while, I think it’s an absolute no-brainer for current iPhone users to upgrade. Especially if you’re still using a 3G (or earlier)… Obviously if you don’t like the general iPhone model then this isn’t going to do anything for you, but lots of people just want a smartphone that’s powerful yet really easy to use, and the iPhone 4 does that brilliantly.

As long as you don’t hold it wrong.

Posted In: Technology Tagged: | 24 Comments

Tweeting the Night Away

Thursday 11th February 2010

As you may have noticed from the new addition to the sidebar, I recently joined Twitter. I’d managed to hold off from joining for a while because I didn’t really get the point – my writing is quite verbose at the best of times, so what on earth is the use of 140 characters? What can anyone say in that tiny space that is of any worth to anyone? Well, a few people (well, 3) told me that it’s good and that I should join, and so I did, just to see what it’s like. Besides, when I joined it was exam period and at that time joining Twitter seemed a better use of my time than revising for the geotechnical engineering exam I had a day or so later…

Anyway, I quite like it. Turns out there’s a lot that can be said in 140 characters – generally stuff of the form of  “wow, this just happened!” or “ooh, look at this…”. There was a specific thing which made me realise just how powerful a tool Twitter is, and that was the first F1 test of the season, which took place last week. This was the first time that many of the teams showed their 2010 cars to the world and the first time that any of them had a chance to run their cars properly and see how good they actually are (or aren’t). For lots of reasons, people not intimately involved in the teams can’t really read too much from the times, so whilst this early testing isn’t really good for starting to map out the relative competetiveness of each car, it’s still pretty interesting and exciting – there’s not been any F1 since early November, and us F1 fans need our fix!

To me, Twitter really came into it’s element during that first test. There were a number of people at the test circuit (people from the F1 teams as well as journalists) who were tweeting away; keeping the hive mind informed as to who was on track, what laptimes they were doing, what the weather was like, pointing out different technical aspects of the cars, and all sorts of other interesting things which made it really easy and enjoyable to keep up with what was happening. In the past, the only coverage of pre-season testing would have been a short report at the end of the day, listing the times that each driver did and the number of laps, as well as some photos. Following the event on Twitter was really good because getting information throughout the day meant that it was easier to get an “overall” picture of each day of testing, and to try to work out what the times mean (if anything). It was also much more involving – getting an almost-constant stream of information made it seem like much more of an “event”.

I’m really looking forward to using it during the races this year. I can see that it’d be really cool then for much the same reason – taking in multiple sources of information all relating to the same event. That, in conjunction with the live timing app on the F1 website (which – although it sounds really geeky – is surprisingly useful for watching the races. Helps keep track of the strategies, because you see lots of things which aren’t ever picked up in the commentary and helps you to read the race better) should make watching the races even better.

I love technology for things like this. The way I can use different tools to change the way I do certain things, so that I get more out of them (as in this example) or to save time or make it more convenient.  Things like Google Reader and Calendar and the way they interact between all the devices I use to access the internet (phone included – calendar sync on the iPhone is one thing in particular which makes me want to shout “witchcraft!”). The way all my documents are stored in a Dropbox, so that I can work on the same thing on any computer – I love that I can work on a document on my laptop in the library, then come home and work on the same document on my desktop, and the whole transition being pretty much seamless. I don’t have to worry about syncing files between computers or making sure that they’ve all got the most up-to-date version – it’s all just done for me. Clever stuff. All relatively simple stuff too, but it’s amazing how much a difference they make.

Posted In: GeekMotorsportSleepTechnology Tagged: | 5 Comments

Silly Library

Thursday 1st October 2009

While I had my year out, the engineering library at uni was done up. It’s very nice, and one thing they’ve introduced is a self-service thing, for borrowing and returning books. All the books have RFID tags, so you put them on a shelf and it identifies them. You swipe your uni card to id yourself, and all is done. Snazzy.

The thing I don’t get though is that the thing reads a barcode on the card, and like all barcodes it can take a few attempts. Our uni id cards (which double as library cards) have RFID, so why use the barcode, especially as the thing has an RFID reader anyway? Seems daft.

But I’m nitpicking, it’s a fairly good use of technology.

Posted In: EngineeringRantTechnology Tagged: | 7 Comments

I’m Not There

Saturday 21st February 2009

As ever, I’ve been meaning to write something here for a while. But, I started work again a few weeks ago. Which is enough reason on it’s own for the gap, but because of a snafu of some sort with the site I was gonna work on in Cardiff, I’m working at Brize Norton. Staying in a hotel nearby during the week, then driving back home for weekends. So fairly busy, and fairly tiring…

Work’s very good. I’ve mostly been helping the engineer with surveying, which is good. Fairly pleasant too when the weather’s as mild as it has been the last few days. I’ve been trying to work out whether I prefer consultancy or contracting. To start with I was leaning towards consultancy, but I’m enoying work more and more now, so I think I’m starting to lean the other way. Which is good, because apart from anything else it’s much easier for me to stick where I am (providing they offer to sponsor me after my placement year).

So basically, life’s good :)

In other news, I downloaded the Spotify beta last week. Holy crap, it’s good. Apart from not having a few artists (Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Led Zep), it’s very comprehensive. The sound quality is pretty good, and the streaming is really quick. The only niggle I have with it is that it’s easy enough to find something if you know what artist/album/song you want to listen to, but if you just want to browse and see what takes your fancy, there’s no way to do that. Thats not a dealbreaker though, and I’m really considering paying the subscription. I’m gonna see if I keep using it as my main music player first though.

Posted In: EngineeringGeekMusicTechnology Tagged: | 9 Comments

Smooth Operator

Saturday 17th January 2009

I am currently temporarily unemployed (technically), so I’ve had a lot of time on my hands. Lately, I’ve spent some of that time fiddling with both my computers.

Firstly, the Windows 7 beta was released last week, so I decided to install it on my Desktop machine. To be honest, it’s very similar to Vista, so theres very little to write home about. Except to say that it’s the first version of Windows I’ve ever installed that has configured both monitors right from installation. It still doesn’t let you choose different wallpapers for each screen or give each screen its own taskbar, but it’s a start. Speaking of taskbars, I like the new one. It’s fairly minimalistic, but it works really well. It bunches each application’s windows together, and you hover over the icon to see the different windows. And if you use IE, you can hover over the icon to see all the different tabs you have open. It’s kinda hard to explain without screenshots (which I can’t take, cos I’m on the other pc). Also, networking seems to be much improved over Vista, which is good (although I’m having a fairly weird problem at the moment where it sometimes refuses to see my network connection). However, it’s still fairly tempramental; I ran quite a few beta versions of XP (or “Whistler”, as it was called then) and it was always rock solid. That said, I also ran one of the Vista betas for a while (“Longhorn”), and I seem to remember that it was fairly dire (although that may have been before they restarted the development programme, so…).

Talking of Vista, it’s had a hell of a lot of bad press since launch. I’ve been running it for a while now, and I think it’s rather good. It’s always been completely stable and ran really well on my system. The only reason for everyone disliking it was the poor driver support at launch, but Microsoft can hardly force hardware vendors to write new drivers. I was reading a thread on a tech forum about the new Windows beta, and there were loads of people saying that they hated Vista but love Windows 7. Really, there’s very little difference between the two…

Anyhow, that’s the less interesting fiddling that I’ve been doing (and lets completely sidestep the possible innuendo there…). I mentioned a while ago about buying an Acer Aspire One netbook, and said that the only weak point was the software. Well, ages ago I read about a new flavour of Ubuntu which was being tailored especially for netbooks, and thought it looked kinda cool. A version was released not long ago, so I decided to install it.

Ubuntu Netbook Remix - Desktop

That’s the UNR desktop, and it’s really a joy to use. The top-left shows all the currently-running programs (so in this case, just Firefox), the top-right is the system tray (or whatever it’s called in Linux), the middle bit (which says “Home” in the screenshot) shows the titlebar of the software that’s in focus. It’s as good an interface as that supplied with the Eee, but much better looking in my opinion. It all sits on a kernel that’s been specifically optimised for netbooks like my Acer that run on one of Intel’s Atom processors, so everything runs really smoothly (well, it does now I’ve tweaked it for the Acer’s solid-state storage). Out of the box, pretty much everything works; I’ve done a few tweaks to get it working how I want it to work, but other than that it was fine. Certainly it needed less work than the Linpus distribution that the computer came with. The only snag at the moment is that I can’t mount network shares by NetBIOS name, I have to do it by IP address. Which is actually only a snag because I want to run Amarok for my music and it needs my shares mounted to the filesystem; the filemanager goes to smb://mydesktop/myshare with no problems, but Amarok can’t for some reason… I had the same problem with Linpus and I can’t remember how I solved it, which is irritating.

All in all, I’m fairly convinced that this is the best OS out there at the moment for devices like this. It’s astoundingly good. I really appreciate it when developers set out to make a UI which works really well; one which is immediately intuitive but also pretty powerful. The technology we have today is amazingly clever and can be amazingly complicated, but I don’t think that using it necessarily has to be the same.

Posted In: GeekSleepTechnology Tagged: | 8 Comments

The Night, Almost the Morning(?)

Monday 5th January 2009

I’ve had loads of ideas of things I want to write here recently. But unfortunately I’ve not bothered, and now when I sit down to write something out I can’t remember what the hell I was going to say. Really, it’s a lesson to not put things off too long. Or to write things down, I’m not sure which.

Anyway, it’s 2009. This is the first January for a while where I’ve not got any exams, which is pretty great. It means that since I finished work a couple of weeks ago, I’ve spent most of my time alternating between playing different games (various things on the Wii but particularly WiiSports and Tennis, Left4Dead on the PC, and lately Darwinia and Bioshock – thank you Steam January sale). Not that I probably would’ve spent my time all that differently if I did have exams, but this year it’s all guilt free…

Speaking of the games, I thought Darwinia was absolutely brilliant. It’s hard to explain what it is, so I won’t try. All I’ll say is that it’s bloody addictive, and it’s caused a fair few “oh shit, is that the time?” moments over the past few nights/mornings. Left4Dead is also rather good, but then you’d expect that from a Valve game. Bioshock has disappointed me a little, if I’m honest. I love the style of the game, the look and feel of the whole thing. But for some reason I don’t think the actual gameplay is that good; it’s not quite as compelling as other games are. It doesn’t keep me up till the early hours of the morning or make me say to myself “I’ll just finish this one thing, then I’ll go”. I’m not sure why exactly.

Anyway, 2008 was pretty good, all told. Probably could’ve been better, but it was certainly better than 2007. That said, like (I guess) most students years really start and end for me at the end of Sept/start of Oct, so the “proper” new year isn’t quite such a new start.

Uhm, I cant think of anything else to write. Thats a bit poor really. Le Sigh.

Posted In: GeekRandomSleepStuff Tagged: | 2 Comments