Windows 8.1… at last!

Start screen under Windows 8.1 (now with more tile sizes)

Start screen under Windows 8.1 (now with more tile sizes)

This afternoon—after having made sure that last night’s backup happened successfully—I upgraded my PC to Windows 8.1 Pro (64-bit). It had been running Windows 8 Pro (64-bit), so just a 0.1 upgrade! Unlike last year’s botched attempt, this time it was successful and took less than an hour.

Issues

Only three applications complained:

  • 8GadgetPack didn’t run until I’d installed the latest version.
  • Microsoft Windows Mobile Device Center 6.1 reported that it was incompatible. No problem: I’m not using a Windows Mobile phone now. I’ve uninstalled it.
  • SteelSeries Engine reported that it couldn’t initialize. I had suspected my SteelSeries Sensei mouse to be the main culprit in last year’s failed upgrade, so I wasn’t surprised. Downloading the latest version seems to have sorted this.

Tweaks

I’m still using two applications to tweak the Windows 8.1 experience:

  • Start8—Adds the classic start menu back to Windows 8/8.1.
  • Decor8—Personalizes the Windows 8/8.1 start and login screens.

Relief

What a relief to finally get it installed, and without any problems whatsoever. Dear Microsoft, I wish it had been this straight-forward seven months ago. But thank you.

I tweeted my progress through the upgrade:

Playing LEGO games across two monitors with SoftTH

LEGO Marvel Superheroes on 2 x 1920x1080 monitors

LEGO Marvel Superheroes across two 1920 x 1080 monitors

This afternoon we had a visit from Isaac’s godfather, the fabulous Mike McQuaid. As we stood in my study watching the boys playing LEGO® Marvel™ SuperHeroes on my PC I remarked to Mike that I wished that there was an option to use both my monitors, rather than squeezing the two-player co-op onto one 1920 x 1080 screen.

Mike was pretty certain that should be possible and after a quick ‘google’ he unearthed information about NVIDIA® Surround, which “joins multiple displays into a single immersive viewing surface”, typically used for full-screen gaming or watching full-screen video. However, we soon discovered that it requires three displays and I have only one.

This evening, not taking no for an answer I did some internet searching of my own and discovered SoftTH which claims to do the same thing as NVIDIA® Surround but on any number of monitors regardless of whether their resolutions match or not, and so long as they are plugged into a PCI Express graphics card.

How to…

I read somewhere that configuration could be a bit cumbersome but it actually turned out to be fairly straightforward. The trickiest bit, to be honest, was locating the game files (see below).

  1. Download SoftTH.
  2. Unzip the two files: d3d9.dll and readme_SoftTH2.txt somewhere handy.
  3. Locate the directory where the game EXE file is located.
  4. Copy the d3d9.dll file into that directory.
  5. Run the game.
  6. SoftTH runs and checks for the location of a config.SoftTHconfig file. If it doesn’t find one it creates a default configuration file.
  7. Once the game loads (on one monitor) adjust the screen resolution two the new default setting (in my case 3840 x 1080), and the aspect ratio to “From Screen-Res”.
  8. The screen resolution will change, stretching across both monitors and now two player co-op uses one screen for each player.

Locations of EXE files

We have quite a few LEGO games installed so I had to hunt around for their various locations within C:\Program Files (x86):

  • \LucasArts\LEGO Clone Wars
  • \LucasArts\LEGO Star Wars – The Complete Saga
  • \Steam\SteamApps\common\Lego Indiana Jones 2
  • \Steam\SteamApps\common\LEGO Marvel Super Heroes
  • \Steam\SteamApps\common\The LEGO®  Movie – Videogame
  • \Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment\LEGO® Batman™ 2
  • \Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment\LEGO® The Lord of the Rings™

Caveats

I have a fairly decent graphics card (NVIDIA® GeForce GTX 660) so this worked for each LEGO game I tried. I didn’t play each game for long so I couldn’t attest for how reliable this is played over hours, but I couldn’t see anything that might suggest that it wouldn’t. A few notes from my 30 minutes experience of this…

Taskbar on monitor two

I discovered when returning to the games that if I had any other applications open on monitor two (I’m running Windows 8 here) then once SoftTH was running it still showed the taskbar.

My workaround was to right-click the taskbar before the game started and select “Auto-hide the taskbar” which slid it safely out of the way.

Character tables

The first real niggle I had was when selecting a new character why does the game present the character table in such a squashed-up way?!

With so much screen real estate why are the characters squashed up so much?!

With so much screen real estate why are the characters squashed up so much?!

The same is true when both players change characters at the same time.

What is going on?! You have a width of 3840 pixels... USE IT!

What is going on?! You have a width of 3840 pixels… USE IT!

Not suitable for one player

My second caveat is that as beautiful as the periphery scenery looks while playing, game play isn’t very sustainable if you are playing a single player game because your character stands right in the middle of the screen, and so is divided between the two monitors.

Cut screens?

My last word of warning is more of a hunch than from experience: I imagine that certain pre-rendered cut screens throughout the game may display in a strange way as they are not optimized for such a wide screen.

UPDATE: Actually, the cut screens on the whole were okay. You do lose some detail as you’re essentially viewing them through a huge letterbox, but it’s mostly viewable.

Targeting is disrupted a little

UPDATE: One thing I’ve noticed is that targeting with certain objects is now a bit off with the double-screen set up. For example, on the opening level with Hulk and Iron Man you need to target a water cannon at Sandman: where you direct the cannon and where it actually sprays are two different locations. On the next level you need to target one of Captain America’s locks, but it’s near impossible to line it up properly without quickly nipping back to a 1920 x 1080, single-screen resolution.

Conclusion

On the whole, I was really impressed. It was simple to set up, with absolutely no configuration from me.

I’ll show this to the boys tomorrow and see what their verdict is: usable or not? Then I’ll report back.

The sentences approach to email

E-mail takes too long to respond to, resulting in continuous inbox overflow for those who receive a lot of it.

E-mail takes too long to respond to, resulting in continuous inbox overflow for those who receive a lot of it.

I often wonder how much time I’ve spent writing and responding to emails over the years. Perhaps five.sentenc.es may have a solution to reducing the amount of time spent in my inbox.

I got my very first email address in 1997 when I started my MTh in Ministry at the University of Edinburgh. It was g.j.m.saunders@sms.ed.ac.uk. Other than my fellow students, most of whom I saw on a day-to-day basis at New College, I only knew about four or five other people who had email back then.

Over the last few years I’ve made a concerted effort to reduce how much email I receive. I’ve unsubscribed from all but the essential email newsletters (and even then I could reduce things further, or move those to a different email account) and I now have a folder called “Action” in Outlook/Exchange where I store the emails that I need to reply to.

I quite like this ‘… sentences’ approach to writing emails, however. It offers four options:

According to these sites, the problem is that “email takes too long to respond to, resulting in continuous inbox overflow for those who receive a lot of it.”

Their solution: “treat all email responses like SMS text messages, using a set number of letters per response. Since it’s too hard to count letters, we count sentences instead.”

It’s certainly an interesting solution. I’m sure there are some situations where it won’t work, where you simply need to write more, where telephone or face-to-face conversations are not convenient (which may be a better forums for lengthier discussions).

I’m going to give this a go for the next month or so and see how I get on. Choose your weapon: two, three, four or five sentences.

Hello Ruby — teaching children to write code

Ruby, with a wise penguins, a green robot, and lonely snow leopard. Drawing by Linda Liukas.

Ruby, with a wise penguin, a green robot, and lonely snow leopard. Drawing by Linda Liukas.

A few years ago I remember reading a book advocating that all school children should be taught to program computers. It’s a great discipline for anyone, the author argued, especially children. It teaches patience, persistence, problem-solving, the importance of planning; it can help children improve their maths and logical thinking, and it’s hugely rewarding to see something that you’ve been working on suddenly come to life and work as expected. I wish I still had that book.

A couple of stories about teaching children to write code have caught my eye over the last few weeks.

Year of code

On Newsnight, broadcast on BBC 2 on Wednesday 5 February 2014, Jeremy Paxman presented an article about the Year of Code campaign, an independent, non-profit campaign to encourage people across the country to get coding for the first time.

One of my first experiences of using a computer was in primary 7 when the headteacher brought in a Commodore VIC-20. I took computer studies in high school through to higher level, and half of my university application form was to study computer science (the other half to study divinity, which is what I ended up doing).

I loved coding as a kid. My friends and I would gather around each others home computers, whether a Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, or BBC B, and we’d design or amend games and programs together.

People are often amazed when I say that I taught myself the web skills that I use now in my day-to-day job in the web team at the University of St Andrews. Except, that’s not entirely true: I do have the experience of those seven or eight years of coding on 8-bit computers as a child and as a teenager. That was a brilliant headstart.

It seems that today ‘computer studies’ in school is more about learning how to be a consumer and user of existing software (how to use Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint) rather than creating your own software.

I was appalled to learn how some youngsters are being ‘taught’ to code in schools today. A couple of months ago a friend of mine phoned me asking for my help. Her daughter is studying computer studies and she is being ‘taught’ to code using… Adobe Flash!? And I say ‘taught’ because it sounds like she and her classmates were essentially shown the application, given a book and told to get on with it. It sounded like the teacher didn’t know to code either.

Compare that with my own experience in the mid-80s. I had three years of hands-on coding BASIC and machine code by someone who understood how computers worked and what the programs were being asked to do, who could tell a CPU from an ALU from a RAM. And then in my sixth year a group of six of us took ourselves off and taught ourselves Pascal in what would otherwise have been free periods for us in our timetable.

We need to be teaching our children to code so that they can contribute to the next generation of computer applications. Technology has never been more exciting than it is now. I remember my dad (who worked in the electronics and communications industry, who delivered the Faraday lecture on fibre optic communications) telling me in the early 80s that one day televisions would be so thin we could hang them on our walls. It seemed like a space-age dream, it is now reality.

My main concern about that Newsnight piece, however, is the interview with Lottie Dexter, the executive director of Year of Code (at 5′ 32″ on the video).

It’s not her admission that she herself cannot code—good on her for admitting that straight away, and even better that she is committing herself to learning this year, alongside those she is encouraging to take it up. No, it’s comments like,

“You can do very little in a short space of time. For example, you can actually build a website in an hour [...] completely from scratch.”

Well, you know. That’s true. But it’s not going to be a particularly good one, if this is your first. Erm… practice?

Paxman then asks her, “How long does it take to teach to code?”

“Well, I think, you can pick it up in a day.”

My heart sank. I was speechless. In trying to make coding sound more accessible she immediately undervalued programmers everywhere. It really isn’t quite that simple. I’m going to be bold here and state: you simply cannot learn enough about programming in one day to be competent enough to teach it. Is it not comments like that that result in school pupils being ‘taught’ how to program using Adobe Flash?

Hello Ruby

Hello Ruby, a Kickstarter project by Linda Liukas

Hello Ruby, a Kickstarter project by Linda Liukas

Which is why projects such as Linda Liukas’s Hello Ruby are so exciting.

Linda, a founder of Rails Girls, wants to create a children’s book that teaches programming fundamentals through stories and child-friendly activities.

She asked for US $10,000, as I write her total is at US $336,203. (There are currently three days left to get involved.)

I think it’s a hugely exciting project. This is what Linda has to say about it:

Ruby is a small girl with a huge imagination. She stomps and stumbles around her own little world while her dad is traveling. On her adventures, Ruby makes friends with the lonely Snow Leopard, visits castles made of windows, and solves problems with the wise penguins. She bakes gingerbreads with the green robots and throws a garden party with… well, if you like to hear the rest of the story, I need your help.

Ruby’s world is an extension of the way I’ve learned to see technology. It goes far beyond the bits and bytes inside the computer. This is the story of what happens between the ones and zeros, before the arrays and the if/else statements. The book and workbook are aimed for four to seven year olds.

I believe stories are the most formative force of our childhood. Everyone has a book that made the world seem beautiful and full of possibility. My book is about little Ruby.

It’s due out in August. I’ll report back when I receive my copy, and we’ll see how Reuben, Joshua and Isaac engage with it.

Simple categories in Feedly

Screenshot of Feedly, showing categories in left-hand sidebar

Screenshot of Feedly, showing categories in left-hand sidebar

There’s something about this time of year that makes me look back on the past twelve months, reorganise things and generally try to simplify life for the year ahead. This evening I turned my attention to my RSS feed reader Feedly.

When Google closed down its Google Reader service in July 2013 I moved over to Feedly. Their migration process was flawless:

  1. Log in to Feedly using your Google account.
  2. Give Feedly permission to read your Google Reader subscriptions.
  3. Er…
  4. That’s it!

In the last five months I’ve been using Feedly on both a desktop browser and the Android app. It’s been a really useful way of keeping up with the sites I want to follow, and it also confirms recent research about how people are using the web these days: on multiple devices.

The old way

I have a problem with the way I categorise my feeds. Until this evening I’ve grouped them by topic:

  • People
  • Web
  • Web tools
  • Browsers
  • Music

The problem

The problem is: there are some feeds that I read more than others and this way of organising the feeds doesn’t allow me to find those feeds quickly.

A few feeds I try to read every post, such as A List Apart and Zenhabits. I take my time with these articles.

Some feeds I subscribe to simply to keep up with what certain people are saying, such as Steve Lawson, Robert Wright and Tom G Fischer. I try to read most posts.

Other feeds I follow to look out for important updates. These are mostly software or web development blogs such as jQuery, Google Chrome, Firefox, IE, Opera, etc. I tend to glance at the headlines and read only those posts that I think will impact me.

The new way

So, after understanding my own user behaviour, I now have simplified this to three categories:

  1. Must read
  2. Regular
  3. Occasional

I’ve also removed quite a few feeds this evening. Some feeds I realised I wasn’t reading anyway; others were a distraction.

I’m going to run with this way of organising things for the next few months to see if it helps.

Update: After a few months of trying this, I’m finding it really helpful to have my feeds organised this way. The only change I’ve made is to rename the first category from “Favourites” to “Must read”. I found that I was questioning whether “Favourites” was my own category or an auto-generated one by Feedly.

Ironically, Feedly does have an auto-generated category called “Must reads” but I’m finding this much less confusing. Your mileage may vary.

Postcards of old Edinburgh (in 1824 and 1845)

This afternoon I came across these few postcards of old Edinburgh.

Edinburgh from the West End

1824

Edinburgh from the West End of Princes Street, 1824

Edinburgh from the West End of Princes Street, 1824. Aquatint by T Sutherland, after J Gendall

I thought it would be fun to compare that image with the same view captured in Google StreetView.

2008

Edinburgh from the West End of Princes Street, 2012 - Google StreetView

Edinburgh from the West End of Princes Street, 2012 - Google StreetView

St John’s, Princes Street

St John's Chapel, Princes Street, from Castle Terrace. Coloured lithograph by Nicol after W Mason, c.1845

St John's Chapel, Princes Street, from Castle Terrace. Coloured lithograph by Nicol after W Mason, c.1845

There wasn’t much to see in the Google StreetView of the image above: mostly trees.

Edinburgh from the Castle looking east

Edinburgh from the Castle looking East. Coloured Aquatint by T Sutherland after J Gendall, c.1824

Edinburgh from the Castle looking east. Coloured Aquatint by T Sutherland after J Gendall, c.1824

The thing I find most astonishing about this view from Edinburgh Castle is the space once occupied by the Nor Loch, to the left of the picture. The Nor Loch was filled in and the land reclaimed to create Princes Street Gardens. The road up The Mound, and the Waverley Bridge are quite prominent in the absence of other buildings, particularly the Scottish National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland. And how few buildings to the south-east of the castle, south of the Old Town.

View of the Old Town from Princes Street

View of the Old Town from Princes Street

View of the Old Town from Princes Street, looking West. Coloured aquatint by I. Clark after A. Kay, c.1814

I got a mention in .net magazine (issue 228)

Tweet feed from dot net magazine

Tweet feed from .net magazine (issue 228 June 2012)

Shortly after last month’s issue of .net magazine dropped through the door—I’ve been subscribing to it for the last few years—I tweeted about a keyboard that I spotted in their regular “latest gear this month” feature:

It’s not often I see something in @netmag‘s gear reviews that makes me think “I really want that”. But today: @LogitechUK K750 solar kbd :) — Source

What a very pleasant surprise this morning to discover that I’d been quoted in .net magazine’s Tweet feed round-up on page 12 of the latest edition (issue 228, June 2012) which dropped through my letterbox this morning.

And it’s true. I’d just bought a new keyboard (the Logitech K360) and then I spotted the larger K750 solar keyboard and I have to confess that I coveted it. During Lent.

“It will be mine,” I thought. “Oh yes, it will be mine.”

And a month later it is, and I have a keyboard up for sale on eBay. But that, I suspect, will be the subject of another post, another evening.