Friday, July 24, 2015

Saltern Point sunset

DSC02575 (1400x924)Folks in the Dorset Landscapes group have been posting lovely pictures from around Poole Harbour at sunset.  In some ways, it’s easy light for taking striking pictures:  High key, high contrast, saturated colours, lots of reflections.  At the same time, that’s the challenge: Is there a composition, an ambiguity, a moment that captures the feel of the place.

Once you’ve reached a new destination, experience it, understand it and enjoy it before you take any photographs. Then scout for fresh angles and moods that gives your photographs a unique, fresh look and feel, suggests Amr Tahtawi.

So, this evening, I wandered all around the point and sat on a few rocks, both above and along the waterline, both over the marsh and facing the Habour.  Then I felt ready to settle in to wait for the sunset.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

‘Taking it slowly

IMG_20150723_183953I dropped into my Leisure Centre at six, e-book and MP3 player in hand as customary.  I’m trying to wrap up a light, misogynistic  thriller so that I can get into Hatching Twitter, the personal startup story of  the one social medium I’ve never understood.

A row of signs diverted towards the gym: Blood Donations Evening.    I knew that NHSBT hosts donor events across England, much as the Red Cross does in the US.  I’ve always  given blood, initially because it earned me a free dinner at Burger King in college, but later because I knew so many friends and colleagues who benefited during their hospitalizations.  At this point, it would also be interesting to see how the process compared here in the UK.

Country to country, societies reveal their truest selves in grocery check-out lines.  The Dutch fling new goods down the belt before the previous customer has cleared the area.  The US is more polite, but asocial.  In the UK, people take it slowly, chatting with the clerk, counting out change, digging for coupons.

IMG_20150723_190900Giving blood is much the same: a stepwise process through intermediate queues, earnest polite conversations at each station.  The level of concern for my travels and possible exposure to West Nile Virus was new, and the laboratory screening tests seemed more superficial.  I  liked the space-capsule style recliners and the techs were much better at hitting a vein on the first try than their American counterparts.

But the experience is much liken  the Tesco check-out: calibrated to the slowest participant, fully satisfied before moving on to the next. It took an hour and a half to complete the donation.

Win 10A similarly slow and deliberate process accompanied my transition to Windows 10 this week.  I have hated Windows 8, the touch-tablet universal interface getting in the way of work constantly.  The new upgrade promised to be more desktop-friendly, with tiles moved to the background and the return of the start menu.

I approach these brain transplants with care.  There are always missing (video!) drivers and dropped settings during the upgrade.  I backed up everything locally and to the cloud before starting, scheduled the install to occur at 1 am, and crossed my fingers.

Happily, this was the smoothest upgrade that I’ve done.  There were no lockups and I think that everything came through unscathed.  I like the new focus on the desktop a lot, and the Start Menu is learning my habits and preferences.  Each day, more of  what I need is offered ever-more conveniently in its menus

There are some configuration adjustments (CNET and BGR have recommendations) and I’m not sold on Edge or Bing, so I set default browser / search away from them the first day.  But otherwise it seems to be a worthwhile and painless upgrade that solves a lot of usability problems.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Tools I use

DSC02535 (1216x1400)Windows 10 releases this week, I have high hopes  that it will make the whole PC experience easier and faster again.  I’ve really struggled with Windows 8.1.  The touch interface gets in the way, inconsistent and oversensitive: I prefer to command the computer when I have work to do, rather than stroke and poke at it. 

I pine, still, for my BSD Unix command window.

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OffSite Storage: Someone asked me about my cloud storage preferences the other day.  I am, frankly, ambivalent about the cloud, where the only copies of my data and applications are kept at the other end of a network connection.  With travel and paranoia, I keep a copy close by on a USB drive. 

Worse, and too often, a remote photo archive or data server has closed down without warning when the vendor’s business model failed, costing me China pictures and web sites.  I’ll acknowledge that PC disasters, a dropped computer or a spilled drink, have also cost me dearly, so this isn’t unique to the cloud.

In any case, I run a three-pronged cloud strategy:

  • My computer continuously backs up to Carbonite, highly recommended, it just works.
  • My photos back up to Google Photos.  The storage seems bottomless and the indexing gets better and better.  I do wish the creepy Story Generator would stop aggregating unrelated photos into fables, though.
  • My shared files go to to Dropbox.  It’s quick, clean, multi-platform, with excellent sharing and privacy tools for collaborative work.

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Utilities: While looking for solutions to a few specialized tasks, I found some good apps worth a try:

  • Memrise:  For years, I’ve been looking for a good Dutch flashcards program to practice my vocabulary.  Memrise is great: itofferss lots of courses (I am doing the MRT Dutch 2, with over 3300 intermediate-level words) and syncs progress across multiple platforms.  A $10/mo subscription unlocks additional practice games, but the basic learn and review is free and effective.  They continue to make improvements, introducing voice output last week.
  • Malwarebytes:  I use Windows Defender, but caught a nasty virus anyway that sent spam emails, disrupted Skype, and slowed my PC.  I got it out in a day’s work, but then bought Malwarebytes as an added layer of protection.  It’s worked well: my only complaint is that it freezes the touch interface briefly when it does a scan.  For extra care, I run Spybot S&D monthly.
  • Supertintin:  I occasionally need to record business conference calls, and this background utility does a very nice job: it’s efficient and unobtrusive.  Purchasing the app removes the time limit, and it’s worked very smoothly.  My only issue has been one crash during an incoming call, losing 5 minutes of cached data.
  • Koredoko:  I am posting daily photos to the Dorset Landscapes group and to Instagram.  I don’t want to run down my camera battery with GPS, though, so need to geotag my photos after the fact.  Koredoko has a good map-based interface that lets me update my tags quickly. Some of the interface is counterintuitive, but works well once I found the right buttons.

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Desk Tools: Finally, I am still looking for a good solution to Contacts and Calendars.  These are the most basic of office tools, but the existing tools from Microsoft, Mozilla, and Android are still awful.

Letting Google index appointments and travel from my email has not brought any predictive order or useful notifications from G+Now.  So I stay with my paper diary and ignore the jeers (sending Lucy Kellaway’s article when people press the point: Users of electronic calendars can take six times longer to scribble something down.).

I had hoped that LinkedIn would be the basis for a self-updating business contacts system, and spent hours linking and pruning my Contacts in Android.  Unfortunately, people don’t keep their profiles complete or current, and Android doesn’t back up or maintain records properly.  Paper alternatives are not good either, so I just struggle along.

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Disclaimer:  I was neither asked nor compensated to write any of these reviews.  As always, I select and purchase all of my own tools, and the opinions are mine alone based on daily use.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Internet Panopticon

panopticon haloCan the Internet keep us informed and socially integrated?

The Internet is a vast collection of information, opinion, images, and data.  It informs my discussions with facts and figures, it delights me with photographs and stories from around the world, it serves data and algorithms that help me to help others.

The Internet is a dense and personal communications network,  keeping me connected to family, to friends ,to colleagues, to interest groups.  More than email or Facebook / Instagram, it gives me a showcase for my photographs, a medium to discuss my writing, and a forum to plan travel and meals.  As an expat, it teaches me language; as an entrepreneur, it finds me investors.  It both creates and solves many social problems.

Can the Internet predict our behaviors?

  • The Internet remembers
    • Your searches, your purchases, your location, your correspondence.
  • The Internet associates
    • The movies, music, books, friends and web sites that people like you prefer.
  • The Internet anticipates
    • The best route to the places you are likely to go next, which email to prioritize, the news stories you’ll want to read, coupons for your most-purchased grocery and personal items.
  • The Internet advises
    • How long it will take you to read an article on Kindle or Medium, people you should get to know better on LinkedIn and Facebook, your forgotten photos that can be bundled into a pleasing memory scrapbook.

The Internet does this by continuously collecting data and signals, building up a Panopticon 2detailed profile and narrative of our individual qualities and activities.  It is primarily done by businesses, not governments.

It is surveillance on a scale and detail that no population has ever experienced.

Of late, my tablet has started to congratulate me for meeting a standard fitness goal (a laughable You’ve walked an hour! ).  My phone reminds me that I have twelve Dutch vocabulary words waiting for review, and Google Now is inquiring about my daily trips to the Leisure Center, asking whether I work there.

How large a step is it to making these messages directive?  Will recipe searches yield only results that fit my nutrition goals?  Will my driving speeds and efficiencies factor into the way that my TomTom chooses routes to my destinations?  Will my digital assistant change tone and language to keep my stress low and my outlook positive?

Can the Internet hold us accountable for our actions?

In Western countries, while government surveillance is generally unpopular (74% opposed), commercial surveillance is less of an issue (45% opposed) as long as privacy isn’t breached, benefits are delivered, and recommendations don’t become too ‘creepy’.   However, research into the psychological effects of constant surveillance suggests that it could cause stress and social friction.  Up to a quarter of people already report changing their online habits to avoid unfavourable monitoring.

Totalitarian societies are considering how personal profiles and narratives can be used to promote better socia; behaviour.  It is a painful awakening to find that the libertarian ethos underpinning much of the evolution of technology has fostered systems that enable more total control over individual lives than at any time in the past, observes Rogier Creemers in a recent article on how the government is shaping the Internet in China.  Internet technologies are increasing the ways to stabilize political and social systems, manipulating rules, norms and computer code in such a way that citizens are nudged into rationally acting out the leadership’s will.

In 1843, Bentham proposed an architecture for a model prison, the Panopticon:

The building is a series of holding cells fitting within a semi-circular structure, panopticonwith a tower in the center for guards.  Ideally, the prisoners cannot tell if the tower is occupied at any given time.  A social energy is created from this, as inmates can see across into other cells and feel the suggested presence of authority, holding each other accountable for maintaining order.  In this way, power becomes homogenized and more perfect.

Has the Internet become a virtual Panopticon? 

The Internet remains a free space whose inhabitants may follow their interests and express themselves as they want.

But our activities are continually recorded and statistically analyzed by surveillance programs.  Recurring patterns are used to build comprehensive individual profiles.  statistical extrapolations and  comparisons allow predictions of individual preferences and behaviours.

The result has the potential to inhibit, promote, and mold people’s perceptions and actions to serve broader political, commercial, and social goals.

P.S.: (Added Jul 24 2015):  Universities assess remote tracking to maximise study habits.

At Dartmouth College, tutors have trialled an app installed on students’ phones that measures how long they spend sleeping, studying, partying and exercising. The intention is to advise undergraduates on how to change their behaviour to maximise their grade potential, as well as identifying those who may be under stress and likely to drop out of the course early.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Eating well in Hungerford

DSC02541 (1400x934)This weekend formed a part of the three day celebration of Eid-ul-Fitr , which marks the end of the 30 day fast of Ramadan.  This is traditionally a sweet Eid, as opposed to Eid- ul-Adha (celebrated 2 months and 10 days later) which is known as a ' meat' Eid.
So, in keeping with the sweetness of this Eid (as well as my normally saccharine nature), I attempted a New York Cheesecake for our celebration.

It was, as well, a nicely confected reason to enjoy the sunshine and sweets on display at the Hungerford International Market.

DSC02563 (1400x933)The village of Hungerford is much more modest than the grandly named festival (although the town itself can be too self-consciously ‘vintage quaint’ at times).  It sprawls across the River Dun and the Kennet and Avon Canal, filled with longboats and tour barges that cruise the verdant Berkshire countryside.  

On a warm sunny day like this, a walk along the winding paths and brick bridges is especially relaxing.  The day’s only error was to mistake a riverside residence for a restaurant: the residents were nice enough to offer tea when we wandered in.  We were nice enough to leave them be.

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Hungerford holds the oldest continuous celebration of Hocktide, a post-Easter period of feasting and leisure granted to medieval farmers by their lords.  More darkly, in 1987 the village suffered the worst firearms tragedy in modern Britain, when a lone gunman killed 14 people and wounded  many more.  A motive was never determined, but the incident directly led to a national ban on semi-automatic  rifles and large-magazine shotguns.

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Today, the food stalls clustered orange and yellow along high street in front of the old Town Hall and Corn Exchange. It had a Continental feel, oily French langoustines and up the row from light Italian pastries, sausages and tins of foie gras alongside wheels of cheeses and cured sausages.  A whole hog gave an American touch (wholly underseasoned), a Moroccan tent recalled days in Marrakech.

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Being uncertain of my baking in a gas oven, I hedged my Cheesecake with a few pastries and cheeses.  The Guardian’s take was flawless, though: except for a bit of mushiness in parts of the crust, the cake set well and had the right texture and flavour (although still pallid next to the w.wezen’s traditional dishes)

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Alongside an authentic chili, I still believe I could make a killing at a Yankee Food Tent at one of these festivals some time.