a note on windows 10

Posted April 2, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

It’s too easy to say “Windows 10 is what Windows 8 should have been.” I mean sure, it dispenses with the touch-first fundamentalism that was the core of 8, and which drove away millions. (Not me.) But once you “fix” the extreme reaction 8 was to a world that seemed to be veering headlong toward nothing but tablets – it wasn’t, by the way – what are you left with?

Well, the plumbing’s better than 7, I’m told, though I’m not qualified to judge. 10 is responsive the way 8/8.1 is – that’s good. And it’s more generally “modern,” though Microsoft is still very much sorting out what that means, as you now have applications like “settings,” which is supposed to replace the old control panel but is a very different animal in look and feel and, it appears, capabilities.

The problem is, pretty much everything everybody needs still runs on Windows 7. And since 7 is not obviously insufficient, I’m not sure where the incentive to change is. Microsoft will probably soon turn Apple-like and list the hundreds of improvements in 10, some of which actually benefit users day-in and day-out. Making the upgrade free won’t hurt, though I still don’t see large companies being in a hurry to switch.

To be clear; I like and use 10. But then, I like and use 8/8.1. I’m a large exception to Microsoft’s user base, which is more like someone I know who clings to XP and buys third party anti-virus protection just to keep the system somewhat protected. If Windows 8 taught us anything, it’s that people don’t like change.

I think Microsoft is a more interesting company now than it’s ever been; I love Windows Phone, though I wish it were more popular so that a few more of the apps I like were available; I’m eager to see the next generation of small tablets, which supposedly will have a more phone-like interface. That’s all good. And to the degree that 10 makes it easier for a Windows program to be everywhere, so much the better. But Windows is still mostly about the desktop. That’s not a bad thing, but it does mean the bar for 10 is high, maybe higher than anyone thinks.


Posted April 1, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

When I first got interested in computing in the fall of 1992, the advances came quick and were obvious. My 386/25 (the ’25’ referred to megahertz) was already on the slow side; there were 486 computers running at 25 megahertz, then faster and finally topping out – I’m doing this from memory – at 66 megahertz.

Then it was on to the Pentium and the Pentium II and III and graphics cards that not only got faster and more able, but got faster at a faster pace. For a long while, everything about computing was like that – the hard part was figuring out when to spend your money on new parts for the tower you were endlessly upgrading. Timing was everything.

Now, not so much.

I’ve been putting off getting a new computer for months. This goes back to last year, when I bought a well-used Lenovo ThinkPad T-420 off ebay for $250. My problem with most laptops is the keyboard; only T series ThinkPads and some Dell Latitudes are really fit for extended writing, but both are pricey when bought new, so I buy used and hope for the best.

I like my ThinkPad a lot – aside from the keyboard, it has spectacular battery life for a circa-2011 machine – but out of the box it wasn’t perfect. Mostly, getting from boot to usable was a study in patience, easily three minutes to get to the desktop in Windows 10 and then get Outlook and Firefox open, though once everything was up and running for the first time it was fine. But having shopped laptops off and on for months, I knew there wasn’t anything else out there for less than $800-$1,000 which would satisfy me – and it would probably be more, especially if I bought a Mac.

And besides, I just don’t feel like switching. Maybe I’m getting old, but starting over with a new computer has lost most of its charm, and that’s even though I store a lot of my data in the cloud and use various programs to make my passwords and bookmarks portable from machine to machine. Migrating to a new machine has never been easier in a practical sense, but emotionally it’s another story: I’m used to my ThinkPad. I know what the travel feels like on the keyboard. I’ve trained myself not to hit the weird little folder key and lose everything on the screen. Even the track pad, which is balky under Win 10, is a familiar problem, something to navigate around, not a deal breaker.

But the boot up, and the general slowness, well, that’s a problem. Understand, this computer has a second generation I5 running at 2.5 gigahertz for an engine, so it’s not underpowered. And it has four gigs of memory, more than enough to run the Windows 7 it came with, more than enough to run 10 now.

So before I gave up on the machine, I decided to try an experiment. I went to my local Best Buy over the weekend and bought some more memory and more importantly, a solid state drive. It took a couple of days – I had to order a drive enclosure from Amazon so that I could clone the hard drive to the solid state – but when it was done, I had a much, much faster, more responsive computer. Boot time to usable desktop (I can open Firefox) is under 40 seconds, and even Outlook opens in 10-15 seconds. Photoshop opens and is ready in under 10 seconds.

What strikes me is this: the laptop in question is nearly four years old. But with two exceptions – screen resolution is 1366 x 768 and there is no USB 3 – this machine is subjectively the equal of something bought new today, more or less. (And back when the T420 was new, you could buy it with a better screen, and critics complained about the lack of USB 3, which was already finding its way onto other laptops.) Certainly there are no obvious computation tasks from which it would be excluded that other, more recent vintage laptops could do.

Back when I got interested in computing, four years was an eternity. Obviously, progress is still being made; the fifth generation core chips sip power at levels the i5 in this machine can’t touch. System on a chip technology  continues to make more possible at lower cost, both in dollars and power consumption. Screens are much better and the number of ports on a machine is slowly being reduced.

Yet none of this feels like the kind of leaps we saw 20 years ago; there is little new under the sun, even as what we have is slowly, steadily improved. I guess we’re approaching with computing the condition Stephen Jay Gould wrote about in Full House, the spread of excellence. In technology, a whole lot of things got a whole lot more competent in a short amount of time, which had the effect of not so much leveling off progress as leveling it up. Things generally get better.

Even in the one area that has seen huge change in just under a decade, smartphones and tablets, it’s worth pointing out that as spectacularly new as those devices seemed at first, they a.) quickly became part, if not the dominant fact, of the computing mainstream and b.) progress in both phones and tablets, while rapid, has followed roughly the same path as older computers. There was the breakthrough device, the iPhone, followed by a period of rapid growth in both the Apple and Android platforms as Android attempted to catch up, followed by feature parity, followed by mature growth from both platforms.

All this strikes me as good, on balance. We won’t see any more spectacular advances in conventional computing, I think (although I heard we might get 10 terabyte solid state drives in a year, which would be impressive), but it will keep getting better, in some combination of smaller, faster, cheaper. More than enough to keep us busy while we wait for bio-computing or quantum computing or nano-computing (aren’t we almost there on the chips?) or whatever not thought of yet comes next.

the way we live now

Posted February 17, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

In my little town, the average temperature so far this month is 5.7 degrees. Things are moving slow. It’s hard to get up, get out, get around, which you’d expect. What’s different this year is depth and duration, (we’re setting a bunch of cold records), and the fact that this winter follows last winter, which was awful in two bad bursts – an ice storm in late December and a torrent of snow in early January.

A lot of us joked we had weather-PTSD after last winter, so we were edgy, quick to run out of patience this year. The joke is not funny now, as this winter proves terrible in its own long-distance-endurance-contest way. We haven’t had major breakdowns yet, mostly because we haven’t had a lot of snow this month. But you wonder: for at least a decade, winter was a two and a half month inconvenience, with some thaws thrown in. Last year and this, it’s a four month pummeling – half of November, all of December, January and February and the first part of March. Our homes, vehicles, stuff aren’t hardened to the new normal, and I have to believe we get another year or two down the road and some large costs – in collapsed roofs, broken plows and the like – will become all too obvious.

There’s a decent case to be made linking this to climate change. It’s not conclusive, but it’s worth paying attention to. Neither of the national news channels I watch has done so; at this point I don’t expect much from CNN, but CBS, which devoted the top three stories tonight to the weather, really should do better. If you’re going to talk about the weather in apocalyptic terms, the public deserves some sort of explanation for why we’ve arrived at this point.

I assume the snow and cold kept interest in this to a minimum, but I found it to be the most frightening item of the last couple of weeks. We appear to be a lock for a “mega-drought,” (which is as bad as it sounds) in the southwest and the midwest, and which lasts for a decade or longer. We’re not just talking New Mexico and Arizona here – we’re talking a wide swath of 17 states, including much of the corn belt. Read this, and consider how civilizations fail.




three journalists

Posted February 13, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

The facts aren’t all in yet, but from a distance it looks more and more as if Brian Williams simply couldn’t resist gilding the lily.

The “why” seems straightforward – and sad – to me. Many people, journalists, actors, athletes, have a hole in the middle that cannot be filled, no matter the amount of public attention/adoration that comes their way. They’re always in the business of seeking more, and it often comes to a bad end.

Add to that the peculiar job evening news anchors have these days, as the titular head of the news for a given network, but gnawed away at by the knowledge that they’re selling erection pills, incontinence pads and other nostrums. It’d be enough to make anyone insecure.

I stole the last idea from David Carr. More on that great loss in a moment.

I didn’t realize how good Bob Simon was until I saw excerpts from a lot of his work all at once this week, during the various CBS tributes to him. He was hailed as a master story-teller, and I’d add that there is a settledness to his reporting, a kind of Newtonian classicism, no matter how messy the subject. Here is Bob Simon, there is the world, and there is a bright line between him and it. That in no way diminishes his achievement; he worked within the established order of tv journalism at a high level, used the tools of the trade to tell splendid stories. TV news could use more Bob Simons, and I don’t know where they will come from.

David Carr was both more modern than Simon – he was an ongoing character in his stories – and a throwback to the pre-college, pre-“this is a profession” days of journalism, when you called journalists “reporters” and living a messy life was close to a condition of employment. Carr’s tale of sin and redemption is well-known, and I think a lot of his secret was how he carried forward the sinner in his redeemed years at the New York Times. Carr could be tough, very tough, but I always thought there was a “there but for the grace of…” quality to his writing, an understanding that sin is always on the table, the next fall is right around the corner and the natural human condition is to be weak. He was the most empathetic of reporters on a beat – media – that breeds snark easily. In recent days, he wrote especially well of the Brian Williams mess. You could do a lot worse than to have David Carr on your case.

fanatic! (the jazz edition)

Posted January 18, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I let my subscription to Live 365 lapse a couple of years back, without much regret. I missed Kyle Gann’s post-classic channel a lot, but could still get my other favorite, Bop City, on 365’s free service.

Live 365, for anyone who doesn’t know, is in the internet radio business. It gives small-timers a way to get a channel up and running, handles things like music licensing, for an ongoing fee; at the other end, it charges listeners a monthly fee for an all-access, no commercials version of the claimed 5,000+ “radio stations” which operate through its service.

In the era of Spotify and Deezer and Pandora, it’s a throwback. It really is radio by other means, and I imagine its target audience to be those of us who never quite let go of the fantasy of free form f.m., of the perfect transition from record to record, of the d.j.’s voice leading us on, of radio show as a way to get from here to somewhere else.

Or something like that.

Anyway, I’m a fan of the musician/writer/spoken word artist Henry Rollins, who also has a regular d.j. gig – at KCRW, a truly great station – and who put out several books which were essentially notes to his shows. For the music obsessive, they’re compelling reading. Rollins writes about music in what I’d describe as “fan style.” There is zero pretense to it; the writing is dead simple, and it’s really easy to get caught up in Rollins’ enthusiasm for a given band or artist.

Only thing is, I like to read about the music Rollins likes a lot more than I actually like listening to it. It’s not that he’s wrong or the music’s bad – it’s usually very good. But I’m basically a jazz guy, so my interests just lie elsewhere.

Which brings me back to Live 365, and a station I started listening to. It’s called “Jazz Note NSU,” and it’s the work of one guy – Ken Blanchard is his name – in Aberdeen, South Dakota. If you believe, as I do, that radio is about having someone else do the driving, and great radio is basically a matter of having someone great behind the wheel, then this guy qualifies. Jazz Note NSU is a mix of bop, post-bop and avant-garde and while it plays a lot of stuff I know well, it also plays a high percentage of music I’ve never heard, in many cases from bands and musicians I’ve never heard.

And here’s the best part: Blanchard has a blog to go with the channel. He writes with the same excitment for jazz that I read in Rollins, as in this passage about a Frank Lowe album:

I have been listening today to a new acquisition: Decision in Paradise (1985).  All the comments on the recording I have read describe it as “conservative”.  It is in fact a genuine exploration of the bop sentiment.  In many ways, this is my favorite kind of jazz recording: an avant garde revolutionary trying out the old whiskey.

I chose the album mostly for the band.  Don Cherry on trumpet suggests wild, but the suggestion goes wide of the mark.  Grachan Moncur III on trombone also misleads.  But I am a big fan of Moncur.  Geri Allen on piano, well, what’s not to like?  Charnette Moffett plays bass and Charles Moffett beats the skins.

I am playing the title cut and ‘You Dig!’  This is one album that you will dig.  It’s available from Amazon for about $5.  Get it and dig it.

Ok, Whitney Balliett it ain’t, but that’s just fine with me. The quoted passage makes me really want to hear the music, and there are a lot more passages like that. The blog has already pointed me towards a handful of recordings I know nothing about, which I will now check out. This is what it means to be a fan, to put your money (the Live 365 station costs money) and time into music that is made hundreds and thousands of miles away from Aberdeen, just because you love this stuff so much, you can’t keep it to yourself.

One thing: it’s been a while since the blog was updated. I hope that just means the writer is otherwise detained with his day job, and not that he’s lost heart for the project. Meantime, I’m going to give Live 365 some of my money.

good enough computing

Posted January 4, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I visited the new Microsoft store Saturday, at the large shopping mall about 60 miles from my home. It’s very much an alternate take on an Apple store; instead of cool whites and grays and wood, you get lots of bright colors, but the staff dress with the same urban hipster feel, complete with a company t-shirt under some other shirt and, of course, a lanyard.

This could have been yet another pathetic Microsoft attempt to hang out with the cool kids; the company has a rich tradition of me-too products that have not much of the charm or utility or style of the best of Apple’s or Google’s consumer offerings. And at this stage of the game, anyone who uses Windows is using the least hip imaginable operating system. While I was standing there, a young boy tugged on his mom’s arm and said (I swear this is true) “Mommy, what’s a Windows phone?”

But Microsoft has responded to the dismal mess it’s in – no foothold in either tablets or phones in the U.S., a “mature” PC market – in a really interesting way. It has slashed the price on Windows, or outright given away the licenses, while pushing hardware makers to produce cheap stuff that doesn’t suck.

And you know what? It doesn’t. I played with the 13 inch version of the HP Stream, a Win 8.1 answer to a Chromebook, and was really impressed. True, the screen was washed out, but that was the weakest part, and I could live with it. The keyboard (aka, the thing I obsess most about) was…decent. At least as good as the one on the Dell Chromebook. Trackpad? Better than the one on a Dell 7000 I tried out a few months back, though others have complained about scrolling being erratic, and right and left clicks getting confused on occasion. I didn’t see anything like that. Speed? On the apps I tried – nothing serious, just things like Notepad – acceptably quick.

And the price: $199. And that includes a year of Office 365, which is important because you’ll need to store most things in the cloud. As with Chromebooks, on-board storage is quite limited.

Over on the other side of the store, tablets, and again HP. The 8 inch unit comes with a little 4G thrown in each month, which is nice. Price: $179. Even better, I thought, was the 7 incher for $99. Both are quick and well-designed, with the Windows home button where it should be, at the bottom of the bezel. I noticed 8.1 has significantly improved on the experience of holding a tablet vertically (like a book).

Finally, the phone section, and here you could see handsets from Nokia/Microsoft, HTC and Blu on display. Unsurprisingly, AT&T continues to have the best selection of phones. Verizon, my carrier, only had one on display, though it’s a beauty, an HTC product.

But the Verizon phone is also expensive, something most of the other phones were not. If memory serves, you could get a no-contract Lumia 635, (a very competent phone) from AT&T for $69, and there were other, not-insanely-pricey phones as well.

So here’s the point: for far less than the cost of a Macbook Air, you could buy a decent laptop, a nice tablet, and a good phone – and have money left over. You couldn’t do any heavy lifting with the Microsoft products I described here, but you aren’t likely to be editing feature films on a Macbook Air either.  And here’s the other point: this stuff doesn’t suck, and neither does Windows. You can run Office on a Stream, or iTunes, though I kind of doubt Photoshop would be any fun.

Hell, any of the big operating systems works fine if you put even a little effort in, and what’s really cool is what works with an acceptable level of annoyance – all computers/tablets/phones are going to annoy you in some way, at some point – and lets you think about something other than the tech involved. By that definition, both Chrome/Android and Mac/iOS still have an edge, but price matters, and on that score it’s advantage Windows.

high fructose emotional rage medicine

Posted December 23, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

The great Dave Winer has some observations about social media worth reading. Look for it under the headline “Twitter and Facebook Aren’t Working.” Key thought:

We may think we’re being informed by these great social media tools, but more likely we’re being fed. High fructose emotional rage medicine. Here’s the next thing to be angry about. And the next and the next and so on.

Social media are obviously more complicated than that, a point Winer makes himself, yet “something is seriously missing.” He’s right; I got a taste of it over the weekend while chasing an odd news story.

Short version: in the immediate aftermath of the shootings of two police officers in New York City, a young woman posted some angry, inflammatory anti-police comments. In her Facebook description, she lists herself as living in the Bronx and being from Harlem, but for some reason put down that she has a job with the Parks and Recreation Department in my small city, hundreds of miles from New York.

Now I have no idea why she did that. Maybe she just made it up, or maybe she had a connection here years ago, but the current head of Parks and Rec has been on the job for the last two and a half years and she had never heard of this young woman.

No matter. There was a rising wave of anger on Facebook directed at the Parks and Rec folks, demanding the young woman be chastised, then punished, then fired, then publicly humiliated. The language was not pretty. So far, so predictable. But here’s what threw me; even after the head of Parks and Rec responded both in emails and on FB, explaining that no one had heard of the young woman in question, that she wasn’t a city employee, that obviously no one approved of what the young woman (allegedly) said, some people still weren’t convinced. One poster wrote ‘Prove it.’ Another claimed a photo of the young woman in question showed her wearing a shirt that identified her as a city employee. (I looked at the photos on her FB page before it was pulled down, and there was no such thing.)

What I got from this was that the FB posters in question were at least as angry about the fact that their target wasn’t quite as she appeared, and so there wasn’t anything people here could do to smite her, as they were about the comments themselves. They had gotten far ahead of the facts – you just take what somebody puts on their FB page for granted? – and emotionally weren’t about to walk it back. And that’s the thing I find daunting about social media; it heats up easily, but doesn’t cool down nearly as well. After minor traffic accidents like the one described here, about the best you can hope for if you’re on the receiving end is a terse “thanks for checking it out” and it’s on to the next outrage.


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