Archive for February, 2010

Windows 7

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

I’m travelling this weekend and didn’t have time to do another Philippines entry, sorry for the tech post.

Before moving out to Manila I bought myself a shiny new laptop since it was easier to ship out than my ageing desktop. It came pre-installed with Vista but, at the urging of a friend, I installed the Windows 7 beta. Since then I upgraded to the release candidate and, last month, finally did a full clean install of the retail version. After nine months using the various versions I can honestly say I love it. It’s without a doubt the best version of Windows I’ve used. It’s like Microsoft really took notice of some of the problems with the previous versions.

Which is not to say it’s perfect, the full install took an entire evening to do. This is mostly because I had to do it twice, the first time it helpfully decidedly detected the previous Vista install in the partition and automatically preserved all the files. I can see why that’s sensible but I wanted a clean install, I could have gone in and deleted everything but I figured it’d be easier just start again. Easy, I thought, boot to the other (Windows 7 RC) partition, clean the drive and redo. Here I came up against one of Windows 7 safety features, where it refused to delete the system files out of the other partition and it wouldn’t format the drive either. Safe, sure, but I’d rather be able to delete files when I want to regardless of how stupid it may be. There’s probably a way round it, but I remembered there’s minimal partition manager on the installation DVD that would let me format the drive.

The second install took a couple of hours, and while it’s pretty painless it still missed a bunch of drivers that I would have thought it should auto-detect. Having to reinstall the video and audio drivers isn’t exactly newbie friendly. I had a fair amount of hassle with the bluetooth and fingerprint-reader drivers, but I think that might have been my fault. I think Windows had already detected them properly but just wasn’t that clear about it. I probably just made extra work for myself with the reinstall.

It was once it was running that I realised how much more thought had gone into this version, setting up networking, downloading from my camera and tweaking settings is just so much easier than it was before. The user interface is more intuitive, things just work and once you get to know it you find it’s full of short-cuts and tweaks to make life easier.

Whenever I’ve installed XP before I’ve normally followed up installing a whole bunch of utilities and extensions, but here it’s all there for you. Stupid things like automatically changing backgrounds are now built in, nothing special but it saves having to install yet another little program.

Part of the reason I installed so little is that I do so much in ‘the cloud’ (as the techies say) nowadays. For the record here’s what I’ve had to install and why:

Microsoft Security Essentials: Microsoft’s new virus/spyware checker, I can only guess why this isn’t bundled or offered as a automatic download (probably anti-trust reasons). But it seems secure, non-intrusive and it’s free. I previously used AVG but I got really annoyed by it’s continued version upgrades and associated nagging.

Google Chrome: Sorry, nothing will convince me to use IE expect for those few specific sites that only work on it (mostly work-related where they only develop for the officially supported IE). Plus Chrome is just so much better set up for smaller screens, you can tweak other browsers to behave the same but Chrome does it out the gate and still gives you all the same info.

Paint.NET: For photo-editing, it’s free and it does everything I need. Although I discovered that I couldn’t access my old Paint Shop Pro files, eventually I had to use my mum’s computer with it’s old install of PSP to covert the files (and I still had to save out the separate layers in things like the banner images into their own files so I could recombine them). I used to use PSP for screen capture too and I can’t find that function in Paint.NET but that’s OK because Windows 7 has a decent built in screen capture tool.

WinAmp, ml_iPod, and gPodder: In my continuing quest to avoid iTunes I’m trying this combination of programs which is allowing me to manage my music and podcasts. ml_iPod is a WinAmp extension that improves the iPod support and gPodder is a stand-alone podcast manager. It’s taken a fair amount of tweaking to make them work together and, to be honest, it’s not working perfectly. I may have to cave and install iTunes but I’m prepared to keep fiddling for another few weeks to see what I can manage.

Growl and GMail Growl: To get pop-up notifications of my incoming mail.

Skype: For video chat and cheap calls back to the UK

And that’s all I _needed_ to install, everything I want to do could be done with that lot or on the web. Arguably I didn’t even need the last two.

For completeness here’s the less essential things I installed: Flickr Uploader (it’s much easier than using the online form to upload multiple files), Google Earth (because it’s pretty), SumatraPDF (Google Docs will render PDFs but this is easier and fairly lightweight), ECTool (to track e-mail chess) and Microsoft Office 2007 (because I’ve paid for it and because Google Docs doesn’t format text documents nicely for printing).

All in all, aside from Windows and Office, this computer is using only free software and for the first time in a while I’ve actually paid for the Microsoft components. I imagine this machine will get cluttered with other programs over time, but I’ve been surprised about the lack of stuff I’ve needed to install and just how easy it is to use. Plus there’s a ton more features that I’ve not had a chance to play with yet.

So, if you’ve not tried Windows 7 and your hardware supports it, give it a go.

Subic: Tree Top Aventure

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

As promised this post is about something you can actually do in the Philippines. Subic Freeport Zone is around two or three hours drive north of Manila and is a sprawling set of resorts and theme parks. I think it’d take a few days to
visit all the attractions, and you’d probably want a long weekend to get some sitting-on-the-beach time, but it makes an excellent day trip if you have a plan and make an early start.

One attraction that’s definitely worth visiting is Tree Top Adventure, set in the virgin rainforest around Subic this is primarily aimed at tour groups and team building but is one of the few places that you could visit and enjoy in a smaller group or even on your own. As it happens there were around a dozen of us, which does help with the atmosphere.

There are a few different things you can do here, they have a canopy walk — essentially a nature walk on bridges suspended 100ft in the air — and a canopy ride which is basically a mini-cable car. We didn’t have time for the canopy walk and the ride looked a little tame, we were here for something that would generate slightly more adrenaline.

Hal drinking from bamboo But we started slow with the ‘Trekking Adventure’ which was a wander through the forest with our guide pointing out various things and demonstrating survival techiniques. Stuff like starting a fire with bamboo, make utensils out of bamboo and getting water out of bamboo as you can see demonstrated to the left. Yes, there was a lot of bamboo use. To be honest it’s nothing you’ve not seen Bear Grylls, or someone similar, do on the Discovery Channel, but it’s pretty cool to actually see it working in front of you in real life.

After that we headed to the superman ride, which is a zipline with a harness set up so you’re hung horizontally and can fly out like superman. If you can find the courage to stretch your arms outs rather than hugging the bar like your life depends on it.

Backwards Superman Backwards Superman II

Tree DropThat’s not me in the pictures but I can confess that I also wrapped my arms round the bar. Finally we headed to the Tree Drop. This is exactly what it sounds like, you’re roped up at the top of a tree and then dropped off trusting the guy at the bottom to pull the rope to slow you down. It’s good fun but it is scary as hell. I’m not fond of heights at the best of times but with four of my team following me, and one videoing, there really was no backing out. Still it took a supreme force of will to step off the platform, even though there’s still a guy holding on to you, worse was resisting the temptation to grab onto something while you’re just hanging there being lined up for the fall. But it’s over in seconds, and it’s fun. It did certainly get the adrenaline flowing, and I look forward to getting the chance to do something similar again.

Overall the Tree Top Adventure is good fun, run by friendly staff and pretty cheap. You can do everything for under a tenner, each individual activity is around two pounds. Safety-wise it seems OK, they do seem to be careful about everything, much more so than I’ve seen in similar places abroad. Although the state of the safety bolt after the superman ride was worrying. At least they noticed and changed it, and I think there were at least two safety systems on that ride.

And yes, you can make jokes about my being too heavy and almost breaking the ride.

More options for what to do in Subic in a later post, more pictures (including a preview of the other place we went) are on Flickr.

Valentines …

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

In order to keep to my resolution I’m trying to establish a pattern of posting each Sunday, with the vain hope that I might even get far enough head to have a few queued up to fill the gaps when I’m travelling.

But since today is St. Valentines day I thought I’d bump my planned post (although the pictures are already up on Flickr) and say “Happy Valentines” to everyone. I hope the day finds you happy with the hand fate has dealt you.

I can’t remember a Valentines day when I wasn’t single — I’m sure there’s been one or two but they’re lost to the wasteland of my foggy memory — which gives you a good idea of how successful my relationships generally are ;). Regardless I’m not one to mope around on Valentines, I just tend to let it pass me by. It’s just never been that much of a big deal for me.

I had thought that today would be a big deal in the Philippines as they went all out on Halloween and the Christmas decorations, festivities and music went on for around six weeks. But Valentines here seems refreshingly low key, a few hearts and cupids pinned here and there, roses in the local shops, but not much more. I don’t really know why, maybe it’s just not a big deal here, the country is very family oriented so perhaps the holidays that are more aimed at children get a bigger reaction.

It does look like there’ll be fireworks as I can see them setting up on the roof of the building opposite, this is good because when they fire them from the ground it often doesn’t look like they clear the top floors of the tallest buildings before they go bang. I’m still going to make sure the windows are shut before they set them off.

As for what I’m going to do today, nothing much. I’ve foregone my traditional steak and a bottle of wine, mostly because I can’t be bothered going out to buy the steak. Although I’m still having the wine. I might fire up the second season of True Blood and start watching that. That’s my rock and roll lifestyle.

Today is also Chinese New Year, which I think is the real reason for the fireworks.

So, happy Year of the Tiger to everyone too. I was born six months too late to be a tiger, I’m a rabbit.

Expect a proper ‘something to do in the Philippines’ post next Sunday. I promise.

Getting around

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

Well I finally got out of Manila for a day, we had a few visitors in the office so some of the guys took them and me to Subic. It was an excellent day and I’m going to write more about a couple of the places we went later I’ve sorted the pictures out.

It did highlight a couple of things, first travelling with a guide is invaluable. I’d been planning to go to Subic on my own and I’m glad I didn’t — it would have taken a weekend just to work out where everything was and even knowing where we were going we got lost several times. Now I know where everything is I feel comfortable going back on my own, and since I’ve done the tourist stuff I’ll not feel bad lying on a beach for the day and sitting in casino all night.

Secondly, I was glad there was a crowd of us. I could have gone to the places we did on my own but it would have been a lot less fun. I think I might write another post about travelling on my own in Manila. and I’m coming to accept that I’ll be doing most of my travelling along.

But there’s one final thing I realised during the trip, and that is that having a car would be really handy. Seeing all the signposts and roads leading to little villages, beaches, and resorts made me realise how much easier it would be to get around if I had my own transport. Sure I could get around using buses but it sacrifices a lot of freedom, I’d need to check timetables and plan journeys in advance. Having my own transport would give me the chance to change my mind on a whim.

The Philippines is a big bunch of islands, so there’s a limit to how far you can go in a on land, but I live on the largest island and there’s plenty to explore. So for the first time in many years I’m seriously considering getting a car.

Be afraid motorists of Manila. Be very afraid.

Although, frankly, the motorists of Manila are all mentalists it might just be me that needs to worry.

Airport Security

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

I fly a fair bit, less than some people I know but more than others. So I’ve spent a fair amount of time going through security, and it seems to have been a bit of a hot topic in the news lately so I thought I might weigh in.

I don’t mind airport security, I’ve done it often enough that I have my own little routine, and I generally know the best way to avoid the queues. Top tips: Fly as early as you can, or as late as you can, if you’re flying midday get there early and check-in online if you can. Most large airports have several security checkpoints, often one of them is much quieter than the others, it’s often faster to walk than to queue. Although you need to know your airports or do a bit of searching online beforehand. Aside from that, keep as much as you can in hand luggage and try and be patient.

I don’t mind security, I also don’t believe that it’ll ever be 100% perfect. There’s a whole flood of people pouring through the gates and, regardless of all the technology, the weak link is always going to be the human behind the screens. No human is 100% perfect, all we can hope for is that whatever slips through isn’t something bad. The odds are good, but not certain.

I don’t mind the full body scanners, I went through one in Amsterdam once. It was faster and easier than normal security and I have no real problems with people seeing my a blurry outline of my bits. Most stories are concentrating on the privacy aspects with only a brief aside about the usefulness of the technology. I think it improves the odds and I’m sure there are ways to offset the privacy concerns. Of course you have to balance the cost of beefing up security with the benefits it actually brings, but somewhere in the calculations you end up putting a price on life … good luck getting that past the Daily Mail.

I don’t mind the government rolling out the full body scanners throughout the UK, I don’t know if the benefits merit the costs involved, but then that’s not my job.

I do mind the reasons underpinning the increased security, this isn’t part of a periodic review, this is a reaction to the hapless underpants bomber over Christmas. A worldwide knee-jerk reaction to a fortunately failed bomb plot. A reaction that may not even improve the chances of detecting a similar plot, let alone whatever comes next.

As I said no security will be 100% perfect, but I rather that governments weren’t doing something just to be seen to be doing something. I’m not going to speculate on what form the next plot will take (and definitely not on twitter in case I get lifted) but we’re assured there’s a continued threat. At some point something else will fall through the cracks, and then more security will be introduced. There will be a point where there’s nowhere else to go.

If people, are their governments, are so used to the action/reaction between the bombers and the authorities where will it all lead? Do we keep getting more draconian or does the government have to turn round and say “mistakes happen, it was one of those things”. Again, good luck seeing how that flies with the Daily Mail.

Had the Christmas day bomber been successful where would we be, the same increased security or would it have been spun as a tragic one off?

By failing and demonstrating how they’d bypassed security have the terrorists pushed the world’s governments closer to introducing seriously dubious measures and policies.

Could a sufficiently intelligent group of people realise that there’s far more milege is causing havoc and sowing dissent with failed bombings than there is with successful ones … On the one hand I’d like to think that the people behind this aren’t really trying to blow up planes, on the other hand that sort of long term plotting puts them higher up the rungs of intelligence than I’d like to think they are.

Bit by bit …

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Urk, three posts behind already (well, almost four). I’m glad I said ‘on average’ in my resolution.

I actually have some posts ready to go, but I wanted to post something about Manila rather than just my ramblings about technology and other guff. However I’ve spent a month doing very little post-worthy in Manila, you don’t really need a blow-by-blow account of how I spent way too much money and lumbered myself with a hangover.

So, I’m slowly settling back into life in Manila. I’m glad January is over, not just because it marks a milestone into the year but also because I’ve been paid, and can now ignore my over-indulgence last month and concentrate on having a quiet couple of months before I head to Australia in April.

Work is proving to be extra mental this year, and will likely be through all of February. This is mostly because we’re transferring a ‘live’ project from our Germany office. I’ve been trying to think of a metaphor for this but the best I can do is it’s like trying to ship a car overseas. By dismantling it in one place, shipping it bit by bit and putting together somewhere else. While the engine is still running. And the driver is still trying to drive it.

And we can now see what was becoming apparent during the process: this car is a bit of a lemon. But at least it’s here now, for us to clean up. Just in time for it’s new owners to come inspect it in a fortnight. Fortunately we’re quite good at shining up cars for their new owners, even if underneath they’re still a bit grotty they’ll stand-up to a quick test drive, and I’ll stop torturing that poor metaphor now.

There’s a good chance we can actually deliver a decent product on schedule but it’s there’s been so much effort involved and the politics of the whole thing drives me to distraction. But we’re in behind the wheel now (sorry) and I’ve discovered that I’d rather be I’m much happier be wholly responsible for everything even if it goes tits-up in the end.

If we get through the customer visit in a few weeks there should be much clearer roads ahead for the next few months and hopefully a chance for a few long weekends out of the city.

Sorry for the rambling work related post, I’ve got a few other random ones lined up but I’ve also got concrete plans to get out of Manila next weekend so I should have something more interesting to post after that.

Plus I’ve got a work jaunt to China in March and then I’m off down under in April. I’m bound to find some something worth writing about from that lot.

Until then I’m going to veg out on the couch, knock back some booze and watch the wrestling. Yes, some things never change.