Friday, August 21, 2015

The Annual Utility Supplier Merry Go Round

Summer is the time when we have to rotate all of our utility suppliers (gas, electric, waste etc).

When I was young we lived in simpler times. There was only one supplier for electricity, There was only one supplier for gas. There was only one supplier for what passed as telecommunications (some arrangement of paper cups attached with string if I recall). Those state owned monopolies generally provided  reliable service but they were inflexible and not particularly good value. You took whatever service they prescribed for you and you paid the price they saw fit to charge.

Today all is deregulated and competition is king. Advertisements constantly tout the advantages of one supplier over another and not a week goes by without sales folk calling to our door to encourage us to change suppliers. Living in a large urban area we are blessed with a surfeit of choices for just about every household utility. Competition is actively encouraged by the government and is supported by strong regulations which make it simple and cost free to switch suppliers. A single phone call or  single visit to a web page is usually all that is required.

Competition has certainly brought advantages. The competing suppliers are far more responsive and flexible than the old state monopolies. The passage of time and march of technology makes it hard to make direct comparisons but I am pretty sure that services are also far cheaper in real money terms. Frictionless switching has given rise to the almost universal practise of offering significant discounts to new customers. A new customer being generally defined as someone who has not used that particular supplier for one or more years.

These new customer discounts are the reason why at this time every year we need to ride the annual utility supplier merry go round. In order to ensure the best price for our utilities we need to switch suppliers every single year. Regardless of how pleased we were with last years suppliers we must without fail abandon them as soon as our "new customer" status expires in order to avail of a competitor's new customer deal. Fear not we shall doubtless be back once the exclusion period has passed and we can once again claim to be new. There are enough suppliers to ensure we can always avail of a new customer discount from somebody.

It strikes me as an odd business model that practically forces customers to change suppliers each and every year but I can see how difficult it would be for any one supplier to break the cycle. We humans are lazy by nature and it is well reported that many customers never or rarely change suppliers. The utilities offer these juicy discounts in the hope that we will neglect to change and stick with them once the discount period has passed. If any company did not offer discounts then they would get no new customers at all and if they tried to offer a better rate to long standing customers they would lose money. As a customer I find it a nuisance to have to ride this merry go round every year but I am pleased to be able to avail of the discounts. Happily there are websites which do the hard work of price comparison and make it very easy to select which of the available offers is best value for our particular usage pattern.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Windows 10 two days later

I am delighted to report that Windows 10 is now running smoothly and stably on my computer. The initial disk chugging which marred my earlier experience has entirely stopped after I left the machine running overnight.  I am pretty sure the initial sluggishness was down to Windows trawling through all of my disks and files in order to index them. Now that this is complete the search feature works properly too which is essential. Windows 7 spoiled me from making shortcuts for most programmes I just hit start type the first few letters of a programme and away we go. 

Things I like:
In use the operating system does everything that Windows 7 did for me but feels a bit more polished and up to date. The interface is cleaner and looks prettier. 

I love the new Task view button. This instantly displays all open applications in a tiled format which is much more useful than the carousel format that win-tab gave in Windows 7. As a bonus the Task view also allow you to setup and maintain multiple desktops. AMD and Nvidia graphics cards have provided similar features for some time now and I have never felt the need to use them  but now that it is built into the operating system I might be more inclined to experiment. 

I love that ability to snap to corner as well as snap to edge. Snapping a window to a corner puts it into a quarter screen allowing you to easily tile your screen with four distinct windows. 

I like that the new metro style interface is better integrated and also seems to have more functionality than Windows 8. In Windows 8 metro always felt like a barrier you penetrate to get to the real control panel behind. Windows 10 still has this "real control panel" but I find that the metro settings menu does everything I need. 

Things I am not sure about:

I still get some unpredictable behaviour when I restart. It is hard to pin down exactly because it is unpredictable and not reproducible but on various occasions my second display and my Logitech G19 keyboard have not recovered correctly from a reboot. This may be related to a lack of stickiness  have noticed from system tray icons. Some applications don't appear to be minimising to the system tray to run in the background as I expect. Again this doesn't appear to be consistent or predictable. 

Microsoft's voice assistant Cortana is not available in my language (English with an Irish accent I guess) so I haven't been able to try it out. To be honest I have no desire to talk to my desktop in any case. I occasionally speak to Google Now on my phone for the novelty (usually to see if it can finally understand the Gaelic pronunciation of my daughter's Irish name) but I don't use it for any practical purpose. 

There appears to be some compatibility issue with my choice of anti virus programmes: Avira. Neither the system tray icon nor the Avira control panel would appear for me in Windows 10. Task manager suggested that the scanning routines themselves were still working but without any visible user interface I couldn't be sure. I have temporarily returned to Windows built in antivirus: Windows Defender.

A lot of the new integrated environment features (Outlook email, Edge Browser, Windows Calendar etc)  are not really any  use to me because I am already a committed Google user. Windows 10 does offer integration features so you can link your gmail and google calendar etc to you Microsoft ones but I don't want to use use outlook to access my gmail I want to use gmail. I don't want to use Microsoft calendar to access my google calendar and so on. 

The Windows store doesn't appear to have apps for some of the services I use. There is no Feedly client for example. Instead Microsoft offer their own Flipboard. The biggest omission though is:

There are almost no official Google apps in Microsoft store. Where is the offical Gmail app?  Where is the official Google Calendar app? You can access all of these through Chrome but that feels a bit disconnected from the new integrated Windows environment. I did manage to put web shortcuts to gmail and google calendar onto the metro start menu  but that required a tortuous multi step process involving the google task bar and an intermediate desktop shortcut. 

A thought about Microsoft and Privacy

I have read a few articles expressing concerns about privacy in Windows 10 but having considered the situation I am happy to tick all of the boxes allowing Microsoft to spy on me. Some years ago I grappled with this issue in relation to Google and I realised that the benefits of all these free services outweighed (for me in any case) the loss of privacy. While I am delighted to get Windows 10 for free I do realise that Microsoft need to earn money somehow and if my allowing them to show me a few targeted ads is the price then I am happy to allow that. The problem as I see it though is that Microsoft are already too late to that party. Everyone I know is already fully committed to an existing information eco system. Microsoft are aware of this and do appear to offer seamless integration into their own apps but this means is that they are getting data second hand from Google or Apple or Facebook. I don't see how they can ever catch up.  




Thursday, July 30, 2015

Windows 10: Perhaps I should have done a clean install.

Three hours after I had first set the automatic installer up and running control was finally returned to me and I logged into Windows 10 with excited anticipation.

Everything ran terribly.  There was constant hard disk chugging and my computer refused to recognise more than one of my two monitors and insisted on running that at 800x600. The search tool couldn't find any of programmes so I had  forced to dig through the programs directory to get anything to run. 

I suppose I should have expected this. My rig has been running Windows 7 since 2009 and the system has grown incrementally over the years with new bits of hardware added and thousands of programmes installed. It has three big conventional hard drives and one SSD all packed to the gills with game, utilities and various odds and ends. Despite all this the system was running very sweetly. Over the years I had built up a complex system with symbolic links and caching to ensure that everything ran snappily. 

I guess it was too much to expect all of this to transfer over seamlessly to an upgrade install of Windows 10. To be fair only one programme was actually flagged as completely incompatible (Macrium Reflect). Everything else I have tried seems to run although I had to manually update the drivers for my Nvidia graphics card and my disk caching software threw up a license error. Because I have three hard disks and only one small (64Gb SSD) I use cachining rather than the usual trick of installing Windows on the SSD. I have a complex scheme with different caches for each disk. When it works it works like a dream but when it doesn't work things get very painful. 

A visit to Nvidia's site sorted out my graphics problems and I managed to find the registration code to re enable my caching software. The cache is still struggling though because of the constant disk activity. I hope this is just an initial thing while Windows 10 familiarises itself with everything on my various hard disks. Hopefully when it is finished the search tool will work properly and booting will take less than the 5 minutes it currently demands. 

Frustrated by the sluggishness I set about installing a bunch of programmes and games and I even defragged my main C: drive. To be far I should probably have done this before I left Windows 7.

Better yet I should have done a clean install. 

For those who are interested my current system specifications are:
Intel Xeon 3470 processor (equivalent to I7-870) 
12Gb DDR 3 Ram
Nvidia GTX 970 graphics
2 x 1 TB HDD
1 x 500GB HDD
1 x 64GB SDD

Edit: There is one bizarre glitch that I haven't got a handle on yet. Every time I reboot my second monitor goes haywire and come up with a corrupted screen. The solution is simply to switch the monitor off an on again which would point to a monitor issue  rather than a driver issue if it wasn't for the coincidence of this happening today just after an upgrade to Win 10. I guess it is some kind of handshaking problem on power up.

Edit 2: Second monitor issue seems to have gone away. Don't know why. Also noticed that my previously chosen anti-virus: Avira doesn't seem to work. It may be working in the background but none of the control panels work so I cannot tell what it is doing. Have temporarily uninstalled it and gone back to Windows Defender.

Edit 3: Happy to report that endless disk activity has calmed down considerably and system has become a lot more responsive. This has allowed my SSD cache to start working so all is quite good at he moment. 

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Valkyria Chronicles

I have been enjoying this Japanese RPG with turn based tactical combat since picking it up in the Steam sale.

The game has an excellent story with well developed characters and plenty of background details all told with very cute anime graphics in a storybook format.

The turn based tactical combat feels a bit like XCom but it has several interesting differences. For example rather than each character getting one move each round you get a limited number of action points to spend on whichever characters you chose. Action points are precious so choosing the best characters each round is an great tactical twist. Also surprising is the fact that characters can move after they attack unlike the majority of turn based games that I have played. This means that it is possible for a character like a sniper to pop out of cover take a shot and then pop back into cover. The usefulness of this is somewhat constrained however by the abundance of reaction shots in the game. Most characters get a free reaction shot after you attack them and before you can move. Also they automatically fire at any exposed character  for the duration of that characters turn. There appears to be an accuracy penalty but you can easily be killed just standing around or moving out of cover. It is no exaggeration to say that more bullets are fired this way than through deliberate shots so positioning your units to get good reaction fire is a key element of tactics. It also introduces a sense of urgency to turns because you cannot afford to linger if a character is exposed.

I have read criticism of the mission grading system in Valkyria which prioritises speed over everything else if you want to get the most XP. This is not a game breaker for me however because even though I like taking a slower more tactical approach there are repeatable skirmish missions that can be used to cover any deficit in XP. Also if you are playing more tactically you don't need to maximise your stats so XP is less important.

Friday, July 03, 2015

I really hope Reddit survives

For a couple of years now I have relied on Reddit to keep my middle aged self somewhat current on what is going on on the internet. Prior to this I had already given up on the tardiness of mainstream outlets, the insufferable social graph of facebook, the chaos of twitter and the overwhelming triviality of Buzzfeed.

I will admit that I was initially put off by Reddit's reputation as the home of some of the worst scum and villainy on the internet and it is true that Reddit is host to a lot of very objectionable content and even more objectionable users. Misogyny, discrimination and racism are easily found on the site along with a generous doses of innocent and not so innocent pornography. Reddit has it's own history of outrages such as the awful trial of an innocent by social media that occurred after the Boston Bombing. Yet Reddit is so much more than this.    It is also home to terrific scholarly material on history, science and other subjects. It is perhaps the only  place on the internet where a comment on a book by an ordinary user might be answered by the author himself or a film star or even a president. Best of all the subreddit structure allows you to tailor your Reddit experience to your own interests and likes.

Reddit is also a very current source of news. Breaking news invariably shows up on Reddit long before it hits facebook, Buzzfeed or the established news sites. Indeed you only have to browse Reddit for a few days to realise how much those tardier sources have come to rely on Reddit for their content. It is somewhat galling to hear mainstream media commentators adopt a holier than thou attitude to Reddit when you realise just how much of their own material is lifted from the site. Reddit may not be the most current source of news on the internet but the sites which  regularly beat Reddit to a scoop live in  murkier corners of the internet, places that most of us dare not go. Reddit has become the established portal for the more inspired creations and discoveries of those murkier corners to bleed over into the respectable internet.

Anyway the site is currently going through upheaval and the volunteer moderators and posters who actually make Reddit what it is are very unhappy with the direction being taken by the sites management and administrators. This discontent has been brewing a long time but the flashpoint happened when former Reddit employee Victoria Taylor was let go. Victoria is legendary among the community for co-ordinating and facilitating the AMAs (ask me anything) that have become such a feature of Reddit.

I don't understand the full implications of what is happening here but this feels like a serious rift,  one that ultimately may not be reconcilable. If the management want to pull Reddit in a direction where the volunteer moderators and posters do not want to follow then the future for the site is bleak. I do hope this is not the end of Reddit as we know it. I mean where else could you find a man with two penises vying for top billing with Barrack Obama and Bill Gates?: https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/search?q=ama&sort=top&restrict_sr=on