On Windows 8 Consumer Preview

I’ve been using Microsoft’s Windows 8 Consumer Preview for the last week or so now, running it in Virtualbox on my XP machine. In fact, I’m working with it right now as I type this.

Windows 8 is a frustrating experience, because there’s so much here that Microsoft got right mixed with a bunch of missed opportunities, and a number of infuriating deliberate decisions which appear to have been implemented out of pure spite towards people who prefer working with as *ahem* the ‘old desktop paradigm’.

So, here’s my brief take on Redmond’s latest…

I like to end on positive notes, so I’ll start on the downers.

First off the obvious: the Metro Start Screen. I can see this working very well on a tablet, where one has no mouse, and can swipe horizontally. It’s become an intuitive, learned behaviour for millions of people, and is an efficient way of navigating through a horizontal tapestry of icons and information. The tiles show useful little bits of information too, and the Metro app tiles in particular have that distinctive minimalist Metro look about them, so no shiny faux-glass surfaces or drop shadows here.

The desktop is a little icon itself. I think the idea here is that the desktop is now to be thought of as an app, rather than the main interface with the operating system.

The problem I have with the Start Screen is the lack of configurability. One cannot, for example, shrink the tiles in any way, or reduce them to an ordered list of programs like you can icons in Explorer. On my monitor they are about an inch square. You can unpin them and move them about though.

Also, in a rather bizarre decision that flies in the face of intuitive UI design, if you’re using keyboard and mouse, rolling the mouse wheel up and down scrolls it left and right. You can’t ‘grab’ the right hand side with a mouse and fling it to the left, but there is a scrollbar.

OK, nothing much to complain about I guess, but it’s a radically different environment to the desktop, and this is where Microsoft screwed up.

On previous versions of Windows we had a Start menu on the desktop, which gave us quick access to a few pinned programs, the ‘Run’ command, the power off/hibernate/logoff commands, the search function, control panel etc.

It was unobtrusive, just a little button in the corner, and behaved rather like a toolbelt. When not in use it would collapse back out of sight leaving your desktop free of clutter – there was no need to have icons and shortcuts dotted all over the place. Unfortunately Microsoft has done away with it forcing you to use the Start Screen instead.

This for me is a major problem. Opening a program from the Start Menu was like reaching for your toolbelt and grabbing what you need. There was no break of concentration, you could keep half an eye on your already-open apps, and your attention and workflow were largely uninterrupted.

However, the Start Menu is not like that. It’s as if Microsoft are forcing you to go next door to your neighbour’s garage to fetch a tool, each and every time you need to use a new one, rather than let you keep it on your belt. It’s distracting and unnecessary, and smacks of railroading users into some kind of UI ‘vision’.

Not convinced by this, I must say.

Using an electric guitar with Orion Virtual Studio

I’ve been using Synapse’s wonderful Orion for a few years now, and it’s my main staple for my secondary hobby of making electronic music. Simply put, it’s the most easy to use and versatile thing out there. Recently (Christmas day, actually) I found out how to connect my old Yamaha RGX110 guitar to my PC, and record it in Orion complete with effects.

  1. Plug your guitar into one of the first two inputs on your breakout box. No pre-amp should be required.
  2. Open Orion
  3. Go to Options -> Audio Input Settings…
  4. Set Audio Input settings to be the Same As Output Device
  5. Tick the following boxes:
    • ‘enable audio input’
    • ‘monitor input’
    • ‘mono’ (because the guitar produces a mono signal)

    This will allow you to hear what’s going on!

  6. Click OK
  7. Go to Insert -> Audio Track -> Stereo Input 1/2 to add an audio track using inputs 1/2. You can rename the resulting ‘Audio Track #1’ track to something more sensible like ‘Guitar’ by right-clicking on the label in the Playlist window.

Orion is now ready to accept your input. What I’ve got into the habit of doing at this point is adding a simple drum line to play over. You may already have a load of synths, drums and samples already.

  1. In the playlist, you’ll notice that the track has MSR buttons. Hit the ‘R’ button to queue it up for recording. The Record button light, up at the top of the screen, will light up red
  2. When you’re ready to record your section, hit the Play button. Orion will count you in
  3. When you’re done, hit the Stop button

It’s worth noting the following:

  • You can rename each section, or ‘chunk’, that you record
  • If you record over a section, the original is still there and intact, you just have to slide it about a bit
  • Don’t leave two audio tracks with the same audio input, or they’ll double up and make a terrible din!
  • You can chop bits up and clone them using the song editing tools
  • Right click a section to edit it in your chosen sample editing software
  • You may well need to experiment with a compressor/limiter a bit to get the signal at a reasonable level.

Orion 8 has three insert effects, four sends and if that’s not enough you can use a MultiFX plugin which can hold four effects. This means you can experiment around with various arrangements of compressors, flangers, echoes, distortion units, EQs to your heart’s content… The only limit appears to be the spec of the PC.

[Fetches pipe and slippers] Hehe, kids these days have it easy. Back in my day I had one flanger and couldn’t afford a delay pedal or a four-track recorder. Nowadays all you need as £500 worth of PC plus £160-odd for Orion (which is less than an analogue Fostex cassette-tape-based four-track recorder cost back then) and you have as many blimmin’ digital effects as you like, plus multi-track recording, drum machine, some awesome synths (Toxic III, Wasp, Screamer, WaveFusion etc.) and the ability to upload your stuff to MySpace. Damn I wish I had had this stuff back in 1995…

One reason why I like the BBC

One reason why I like the BBC
This may well sound like an advert for something that does not need advertising, but since upgrading my phone to the HTC Desire S a couple of weeks ago I’ve discovered a number of wonderful things.

Quite apart from Shredder Chess, O2’s free Cloud wifi service, the ability to create/upload web pages to a remote server and wirelessly move files from PC to phone, I’ve found having a smartphone to be a surprisingly culturally enriching experience.

This is mainly due to two things that the BBC seem to be doing rather well: their podcasts and their iPlayer app.

With the podcasts, one can download as many 30-odd minute audio programmes as one has storage space for. Once you have them on your device, you have them for good. They’re just .mp3 files, they can be moved from PC to phone to laptop, they won’t expire, and you can listen to them on a long coach journey, or plug your device into a little speaker and listen to them at night before you go to bed.

Of course, you can do this with an MP3 player as well, but I found that using my MP3 player was mildly spoiled by the faff of turning on PC, starting the Creative Labs Media Centre (or whatever it’s called), downloading files to one’s PC and syncing via USB. The wirelessness of my phone means that I just have to let the podcast software update itself whilst it’s in range of my router, and it will happily update and download any podcasts I’ve subscribed to. It’ll also (optionally) delete old podcasts to save space as well. I’m currently using Doggcatcher on my phone, though I’ve been working on a podcast streaming application for Windows on and off in my spare time.

Digging through the archives

There’s a lot out there. The BBC have archived their Composer of the Week programmes, for example, and so one could potentially download the whole lot and learn about obscure composers from A-Z (the other day I listened to the programme about Scarlatti on the way home from Sainsbury’s). They also have documentaries, science programmes, nature programmes and so on. I found an interesting podcast from a few days ago from Radio 4, ‘In Our Time’, which I’d never otherwise have stumbled upon (let’s face it: few of us read the radio schedules on the off-chance of finding something interesting, and the Beeb doesn’t exactly advertise the presence of such programmes). In a recent episode Melvyn Bragg was discussing lunar exploration, and in yet another podcast from the same programme they discussed the divergence of European philosophical thought between the Frege-influenced, formal-logic philosophers and the wilder, more romantic ramblings of the likes of Nietzsche. Great stuff.

With these podcasts, taken together with iPlayer (which allowed me to listen to a Radio 3 performance of Wagner’s ‘Flying Dutchman’ at a time that suited me) one effectively has an extensive pick’n’choose, portable and on-demand version of the BBC.

And so here’s something I’ve been wondering: does the BBC compile usage stats for iPlayer and podcast downloads? The reason for asking is that viewing figures for TV will also include passive viewing. People often just turn on the TV for background noise, or will watch something specific and then just leave it on. With podcasts and on-demand, the user has made a more conscious decision to access the content. If so, do these figures go towards informing future programme content?

Skyrim

Skyrim, the latest role-playing adventure game from Bethesda, just arrived on my doorstep today. For those who neither know nor care about computer games, this is an event sort of on a par with the release of a new Star Wars movie, and has been greeted by the gaming community in a similarly mixed way.

Most folks are unanimous in praising the game itself, it's depth, graphics and sheer size. However one thing's been bugging a hell of a lot of PC gamers: the interface.

This is the thing that allows you to sort through your loot, fiddle around with your character, buy and sell items from other characters and so on, and it seems it's been ported straight across from the console version to the PC.

Bethesda appear to have forgotten that PC games are played with a mouse and a keyboard, rather than a little controller thing.

I'm not letting this put me off, it's currently installing on my ancient PC, and so I'm going to have some dinner and read the (rather thin) manual whilst waiting.

A cat, yesterday.

Web development on the Android Desire S

Well bugger me, it never, ever occurred to me that I may be able to do this on a phone! I’ve accidentally discovered I can make web pages on my phone and FTP them to a remote server.

This basic little demo page was coded as a result of the following experimental process. I used the following three apps:

I had already downloaded the excellent ES File Explorer, which allows me to move files around on my phone, rename them and so on. This got me wondering about coding my own apps and things, and also wondering if there was a way to create a local (‘permanently-on-phone’) web app (‘thingy that gets info off the web’), or perhaps scripting for the phone (automating a few functions).

920 Text Editor

I started looking for a text editor in which to bash out some HTML. I found 920 Text Editor and installed it. I set it to highlight HTML tags (Menu-> Highlight -> HTML), though it will also highlight PHP, ASP and so on.

Tapping in code is made easier by the row of icons at the top of the screen which contain shortcuts for curly brackets, angle brackets, the ubiquitous semicolon and so forth.

A quick and dirty HTML page later, and I wanted to find a way to check it on my phone.

I saved it to my SD card in the ‘My Documents‘ folder

Opera Mobile

Selecting the little ‘page with globe’ icon on the tool bar gave me the option of opening the file in different browsers. I like Opera the best on mobile devices so I chose that.

You can of course set the browser to file://localhost/mnt/sdcard/My%20Documents/test.htm, to use my example. I’ve bookmarked file://localhost/mnt/sdcard in my browser for convenience.

Wow, it worked. Now how do I get it onto my server?

FTPing to Website

This was the bit that made me happy. Hell, it’s all made me happy so far, but this was the best bit.

ES File Explorer has FTP functionality. It can move files from the phone to a website on the internet.

  • Go to Menu -> Show Tabs and 
  • touch the FTP tab. 
  • You’ll find an empty screen with the helpful message ‘Add FTP by Menu->New->FTP’.
  • Do so, and enter the details of your FTP location and details and you’re away.

It’s a very minimal setup, and building a large website on it would be very fiddly, but it could be useful for correcting typos and so on on the fly.

A couple of caveats though:

File size limitations

Firstly, I’m not sure what the largest file I can use on my phone in 920 is. I have an 8GB SD card which I may backup and replace with a 32GB at some point. I’m concerned that I may unwitingly end up with a atruncated file!

Use WiFi

There’s always a possibility I may end up crapping all over my data-limit if I use my mobile provider’s network instead of WiFI by accident. Note to self: ensure WiFi is on, and Mobile data is off.

Anyway, pretty pleased with this so far.

Using Chessbase files with Android and Scidonthego

Chessbase is the company behind Fritz, one of the chess programs I use. As well as making chess engines that Kasparov uses for training, they also compile whacking great databases of played games that can be analysed by pro chess players, huge great tutorial DVDs with databases of annotated games and video tuition, and they run an online server thing so you can play against people around the world.

I use Fritz and make use of the odd tutorial DVD, but not so much the huge databases or the ‘play against real people online’ thing. Their database system has however become the de facto standard for most chess players, and so there are a large number of Chessbase-format databases with tutorials and annotated games floating about. Everymanchess, for example, has released a whole raft of Chessbase-format eBooks on different topics.

Sadly Chessbase haven’t yet ported their stuff to Android or iOS, and so if you want to rake through a stack of historical chess games and commentary on your mobile device you’ll probably have to stick with the archaic .pgn text format. So, what to do if you only have Chessbase format?

These directions show you how to use Fritz to convert a Chessbase database to a .pgn file, and load it into a free bit of software called Scid On The Go.

  1. Open Fritz
  2. Open the database managing screen (F12)
  3. Open your chosen database
  4. Select All games in the database (ctrl-A)
  5. Go to Menu -> Selection to text file
  6. In the popup window, select ‘pgn‘ in the radio buttons
  7. Click ‘OK‘ and find somewhere suitable to save it

Right, assuming you have Scid on the Go installed on your Android device, you’ll need to get your .pgn file into the /scid/ directory. I just connected my phone to the USB of my laptop and dragged it across.

Once done:

  1. Open Scid on the Go
  2. Go to Menu -> More -> Import .pgn file
  3. Select your .pgn file from the list (it will list whatever’s in /scid/)
  4. Wunderbar, it automagically turns it into a Scid database that you can browse at your leisure…

This is great because it means I now have ‘Starting out: 1.e4’ on my mobile phone!

New Phone

So.

Farewell then, LG Prada. Hello to the HTC Desire S.

I tried and tried and tried to fix/recharge the old Prada phone, but with great regret I ended up making the difficult decision to upgrade. That Prada phone had been my constant companion for a good few years now, and I had resisted upgrading simply because I liked it so much. It was scratched, it was battered, the Prada logo had flaked off and it had become a shadow of its previous minimalistic elegance, but it would text and call with no problems, and take the odd photo.

To be clear, I'm not an early adopter. I'm a very late one who tends to see consumer tech developments as marketing gimmicks designed to fleece the unwary. I generally refuse to update my tech unless there's a clear advantage to doing so.

Having had some experience of the Android operating system with that generic 7" tablet my mother had given me (see here), I liked the way I could easily shunt things between my PC and the device using just a USB cable, and figured that a smaller-still Android advice with which I could also text people and phone would be a cool plan.

Some Googling and calculations on the basis of my current mobile phone usage later, I wandered into O2 on the way home from work. Getting the new phone cost a small amount, and I bolted on some data-transfer to my tariff as well, so I now have an easy to use phone/Android device to fiddle with and play chess on.

What's in the Box

There was the phone, some earphones, a quickstart guide, and a charger thingy. No manual, case, strap, software disk to help syncing with PC or fine-weave polishing cloth (I was clearly spoilt by the Prada package). I found the manual in a pdf file in the folder /sdcard/User Manual/, once I'd installed a file browser.

I mean, FFS, who sells a device without a bl00dy file browser? They put a mirror app on it, so I can see my face in the phone, and a torch app, but no file browser!

Android Market

It came with the Android Market on it, and Google know who I am now thanks to my Blogger account (which runs parallel to my Livejournal one), so downloading apps is a bit easier that downloading .apk files and moving them across.

I downloaded the following:

  • A file browser. Actually, two: Astro (which has adverts on it) and ES File Explorer
  • Chess.com, but I'll go for Shredder later
  • Google Sky
  • Amazon Kindle
  • Opera browser

I stuck to free apps because the Android Market doesn't let you use PayPal, you have to give Google your credit card details. I do not trust them with my credit card details, and so paid-for apps will remain unbought for the time being. Hopefully the still-forthcoming Amazon Appstore will make life a bit easier.

Siranui recommended a few useful-sounding things: an app-killer for freeing up memory, and a 'turn off and on again' thing for quickly disabling wifi etc to save battery.

Will see how it goes. I have discovered that it should be possible to develop HTML/Javascript/CSS apps for it easily enough, so it's looking like an interesting thing.

iTunes U

I was always rather ambivalent towards Apple’s products. I love their design, easy-to-use interfaces and accessibility, and I was also impressed by the way that the iPad and Macbook managed to make having a computer ‘cool’. Thanks to Jobs and co, a laptop was no longer the accessory of a besuited workaholic desperately mining every last ten minutes of their life in search of ‘productivity’, or the insecure computer geek who cannot bear to be parted from their copy of Netbeans and access to Slashdot.

What I wasn’t so happy about was the way Apple put the brakes on independent development via a rigorously-policed Appstore, and the way one couldn’t easily USB an iPad to a PC laptop and drag/drop files between them, but then I’m a born tinkerer and plugger-inner who finds things like that annoying, and was mildly concerned that this closed architecture would set an unholy precedent. I’ve always been fond of the way Microsoft gives away free dev tools for both the Xbox and PC and bags of tutorials, and especially fond of the way Linux practically encourages you to take it apart and make your own OS. I like that kind of thing.

Anyway, a couple of days before Steve Jobs died, I discovered something rather lovely. I was disabling an installation of iTunes on my PC because it kept trying to ‘do things’ (update itself, update Quicktime etc.) when I discovered something called ‘iTunes U’.

iTunes U is a section of iTunes that sits alongside the TV show bit, the music bit and the film bit, and it contains lectures from various universites, such as Stanford, Oxford and the Open University.

Luckily the iTunes software itself is a free download, and the stuff on iTunes U is also free. You don’t need to sign up for anything or create a profile either. The downloaded files are just .mp3 or .mp4 files that sit in a download folder (by default C:Users[username]MusiciTunesiTunes MediaDownloadsiTunes U), and they have no DRM.

This means you can happily put and use the material on your Creative Labs mp3 player, your mobile phone or your Windows laptop. You don’t have to watch them in the dreadful Quicktime, you can use whatever media player you like, and you can also pass them on to friends.

To my mind, this is what the internet should be about. Our culture and society is immeasurably richer when we have the option of learning whatever we like easily and for free. It’s no substitute for studying at a university and having access to the library, attending seminars and having 121 tutorials with a member of faculty (it would be unfair to expect the same ‘density’ of information in a 20-minute video), but a bunch of online videos and sound files that can be carried around in a little box is definitely a step in the right direction.

For my part I had a happy evening watching lectures on Medieval English, Cosmology and one on Metaphysics and Epistemology. Wonderful stuff.

Telescope

Finally, after waiting for three days, the skies were clear enough this evening to make use of my new telescope. The frustrating grey-brown blanket of cloud finally dispersed, and so I set about getting the thing out of my living room, out of the door and under the stars where it belonged.

I thought getting my bike out of the hallway was awkward. The telescope apparatus consists of a tripod, an ‘Equatorial Mount’ and the tube+mirror bit (which probably has a more technical name), and was a complete pig to assemble. It had other qualities in common with a pig: its weight and general reluctance to be moved to name but two. It also has lots of things that stick out as well, and having already set it up and balanced everything I was unwilling to take it to bits again and reassemble it outside in the dark.

Having got it outside, I proceeded to calibrate the little wheels and things. First thing to sort out was the ‘Red Dot finder’, a sort of laser-pointing device that projects a tiny red dot onto an eyepiece, allowing you to ‘aim’ the observation tube apparatus. These both have to be pointing in the same direction otherwise there’s little point in having it, and if you don’t have it you’ll find it impossible to find anything out there. Space is rather large, and is even bigger when you magnify it a hundred times or so.

I used a distant chimney for this, because it wasn’t moving.

This done, I fished out a small spirit level, recently purchased from Clas Ohlson for £2.29, and ensured that the tripod itself was flat.

Next up, the Latitude adjustment. I had to ensure that the Equatorial Mount pointed towards Polaris. I roughly aligned the apparatus North using a recently-purchased-from-Clas-Ohlson compass (£4.99), aimed the red dot at Polaris, and started adjusting the Latitude wheel. All was good.

These two jobs done, I had to learn how to move the telescope. The weird thing is that it doesn’t, as one would expect, tip in a simple up and down motion, and rotate left and right (well, unless something’s come loose). Once everything had been aligned, one control would alter the ‘Declination’ (a bit like Latitude) and the other would adjust the ‘Right Ascension’ (akin to Longitude) of the scope. The idea is that as the Earth turns, the stars seem to move, and so to keep up with them you only need to fiddle with the Right Ascension control.

OK, took me a while. I still wasn’t seeing much due to messing about with my torch, and the light coming out of the back door. I switched to using my rear bike light for illumination, and taped a binliner over the back door windows. A few minutes later I went back, and pointed it at Cassiopeia.

Wow, there were hundreds, thousands of tiny stars! Despite being within about a mile of the city centre! This was amazing. I started to nose round the sky using an old star chart.

I found the Andromeda Galaxy! It was a pretty damned big, yet faint grey ‘splodge’ amidst the stars. I actually recognised it from my adventures with the Binoculars last year, and found it a rather transfixing sight.

The greyness, incidentally, was due to the way our eyes have evolved: in the dark, most things look grey because the cones in our retina (which detect colour information) struggle with faint light. Unfortunately all my rods and cones had to work with was the small amount of light that had travelled 2.5 million light years and fallen into my 130mm-wide telescope, and at that distance things get spread pretty thinly.

Just as I was getting completely lost in my explorations of the cosmos, I heard a peculiar ‘splat’ sound next to me. Followed by another, and another. I turned the bike light on.

It was a frog.

I had to temporarily abandon my observations at that point, due to my irrational fear of frogs. I threw a couple fo small coins and pebbles at it to try and shoo it away, but in defiance it splatted its way over to my tripod, sat on my copy of the Sky At Night magazine for a bit, looked at me, waited for a while, and eventually disappeared.

By that time the Andromeda Galaxy had moved on: this was to be my first test of my calibration, and luckily adjusting the Right Ascension control brought Andromeda’s Galaxy back to the centre of the view. Not bad, hey?

Looking forward to viewing the Pleiades later this winter, finding my first planet and generally getting into this.

Oblivion

There’s a game coming out on 11/11/11 called Skyrim. It’s the fifth game in a series of role-playing games (RPGs) called the Elder Scrolls series.

I always used to hate role playing games with an unsually passionate loathing, until Ms [info]rhapsody9 showed me how they worked. It was at that point I started to enjoy the sheer richness of the content of games like Morrowind and the general feeling of immersion in a world where one can read notebooks and scrolls, create spells, craft weapons, generally do your own thing and wander where you will.

As an exercise I installed the last Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion. Sadly the programmers, Bethesda, who are a brilliant development group, rather buggered the fourth Elder Scrolls game by making it far, far too easy.

What happens in these and other RPGs is that typically your character starts off a bit wussy, and gets stronger and more powerful as the game goes on. Unfortunately a well-intentioned miscalculation by Bethesda meant that all the other characters in Oblivion did exactly the same thing, so there was never any sense of challenge. Worse, the loot you could nick and the rewards for quests would also scale regardless of where you were in the game to fit around your character.

This sucked the life out of the game, and after messing about with it for a bit I just gave up on it.

Anyway, a little while later I discovered something called ‘Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul‘. This is a modification (mod) that one can apply to the game to fix it. This has made a huge difference, and gives the game a much-needed edge.

As such, I’m now replaying Oblivion and thoroughly enjoying it (though it’s still nowhere near as good as Morrowind!), and am now hugely looking forward to Skyrim…