30 December 2006

Sad News for us

A brief tribute to my de-facto father-in-law, John ("Jack") Richard Cotterill 18/10/20 to 28/12/06. JR, as we have known him, has been my 2nd Dad for more than 26 years and I have only seen him as a good and wonderful man in all of that time. He will be sorely missed by me, and of course, by my partner, Sue who has done so much to enable him to enjoy a good quality of life these last few years, while he was suffering increasingly from the effects of Parkinson's disease. While this itself is not a killer, it's debillitating effects are incredibly frustrating to its sufferers and ultimately create danger from normal everyday activities such as eating and walking. JR, we'll miss your dry wit, your incredible knowledge, your love of the arts, our 2-3x daily phone calls, your stays with us, our discussions about the test matches...

14 December 2006

Great Movie - Stray Dogs

We get through a lot of movies via our Lovefilm (=UK Netflix) subscription. Sue is very methodical about looking at film reviews each week and noting the ones we should watch, and getting them added to the list.

Last weekend we watched a film called Stray Dogs, and I have to say this is a stunning movie. It certainly isn't a blockbuster, so it may not be one for Christmas Day, but if you like foreign films it is an awesome example. The Director, Marzieh Meshkini, is an Iranian woman who also directed "The Day I Became A Woman", another wonderful and fascinating film.

Stray Dogs is set in Afghanistan, post-Taliban, and almost every scene involves the two children at the heart of the movie. Often in such films, the quality is poor, but this is beautifully shot, and wonderfully mastered onto DVD and displayed very well on screen (especially compared to our next DVD - a US indie film that was atrociously formatted).

There's not a lot of extras, but a text interview with the Director is well worth looking at. Marzieh's viewpoints are incredibly balanced and insightful. The top of the UN should be made up of people like her!

This film strangely reaffirms one's faith in humanity with one hand, while destroying it with the other. It shows that we live in one world with a common set of aspirations. Why do we mess it all up?

Tell me what you thought! Are the two main actors not brilliant?

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Music Recommendations

I think it's been quite a disappointing year for new music on the whole. My favourite album of the last few years - Long Gone Before Daylight by the Cardigans has not yet been surpassed (even by their follow-up, Super Extra Gravity). This is one of those rare albums when each track from first to last is wonderful. If you haven't heard this, give it a shot.

But from this year's (or thereabouts) music releases, I'm going to suggest a few things to you that you may or may not have heard of (all links are to Amazon.com as not all of it can be bought in the UK. Sometimes I've had it from Amazon marketplace, or even from iTunes).

First up is Tanya Donelly - a founder of the indie band Throwing Muses and also Belly. Tanya has made 4 solo albums all of which in my opinion are wonderful. Just last month came This Hungry Life an interesting album in that it is recorded live in a small venue but is all new material (a brave attempt). It starts with a cracking first track. Some might argue the album is a bit too country-tinged, but I like it. If you do like this, you will almost certainly like the first two albums - Lovesongs for Underdogs and BeautySleep. The third album - Whiskey Tango Ghosts is still good but just not quite on a par with the first two. She has a great voice, and some good lyrics too.

Tanya's step-sister is Kristin Hersh who is also of the Muses. I was a bit late to Grotto, but again I really like it, and a new one is due in the New Year. Unfortunately, I missed a performance in a small London venue next month as it was sold out quickly.

Incidentally, while I like the Muses, I'm not an out-and-out fan, so don't think that's a pre-requisite for liking these albums - they're just great albums by themselves.

I've also enjoyed The Dears with their second album - Gang of Losers. Murray Lightburn who fronts the band has a great delivery, and great lyrics. Sometimes you swear you're listening to Morrissey (listen to track3 "Lost in the Plot" off the first album "No Cities Left" and you'll see what I mean). Anyway, this album offers the best of British indie from the late 80's/90's. Not bad for a Canadian band!

When you see Murray live (well, on video), he's not what you expect. The same, in reverse, goes for Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons fame). I also liked "I am a bird now" though this may be an acquired taste.

The Pet Shop Boys are a band I've liked over the years, without having a complete collection. Fundamental (and the 2-disc set with Fundamentalism) shows them at their best with catchy tunes.

Staying with boppy and electronica, one of the albums I played a lot this year was We Are Pilots from the Shiny Toy Guns. I discovered this band on Radio 6 doing a cover of a Depeche Mode song on an album of such covers called Goth Electro
which is also good. I got We Are Pilots off iTunes UK as it was not available here as a CD, but last time I looked it wasn't there. Go figure.

Finally, if you're in to more atmospheric stuff, I saw an excellent review of The Silver Tree by Lisa Gerrard who used to be 50% of Dead Can Dance. I went ahead and got this off iTunes as it was a long album at a good price (couldn't get it on CD for less than about £20 as an import at the time). If you liked the later Dead Can Dance albums, then you'll appreciate this one. Another comparison would be like a good Enya album but without some of the catchy (and later annoying) songs!

I hope you'll manage to sample one or more of these artists and perhaps discover something you like.

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06 December 2006

Microsoft UK rip-off

“The UK’s future competitiveness depends on IT,” said Gordon Frazer, Microsoft’s UK managing director at last week's launch of Vista claiming that Vista and Office 2007 would have a real impact (though I find this hard to see unless other countries don't upgrade as fast - assuming indeed that upgrading DOES help productivity).

The UK has been a huge market for Microsoft, and we have a particularly soft public sector that accepts anything Microsoft throws at it for extortionate amounts of money.

So how come if the UK is so important to Microsoft, and that the company is so concerned with our productivity does it ensure that its software should cost twice what it does in the States?

I was wondering what it would cost for instance to put XP Pro or Vista on a Mac using Parallels. So I checked out Amazon:

Amazon.co.uk - Windows XP Pro SP2 Cost £232.99 (reduced from £289.99)
Amazon.com - Windows XP Pro SP2 Cost $239.99 (reduced from $299.99)

Even allowing for VAT on the UK version that is an exchange rate of £1=$1.21 at a time when the dollar is almost at the 1:2 ratio. Microsoft already makes gross margins of over 85% on Windows. It means in the UK, it makes double the profit.

This is not an isolated case. For Microsoft Office 2003 Professional, the price is £399 UK vs $414 US. It is possible to get both applications cheaper in the US (for instance NewEgg has Office 2003 at $359). Many US stores are also carrying Vista upgrade offers (though I've read some horror stories there too).

To me this is outrageous and unjustified, yet I see no fuss about it. Where is our good media when they're needed? This is a scandal that our competition and consumer bodies should be looking at now!

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What's happened to Adobe?

Adobe is a company I used to admire. I first came across them in the mid-80's when I worked at the investment bank/venture capital company that brought them public (to much fanfare). I was an early user of postscript in the first Apple laser printers which I thought was marvellous (too often I was encouraged to buy technology from one of our "investments", but this one I jumped at myself).

I've never been a user of Acrobat (though I use pdf documents all the time, and think they're great), and I've only touched Photoshop on the odd occasion.

But in the last week, I've witnessed a number of things which make me think that Adobe is no longer a company I admire and has adopted some of the dubious tactics of one or two other software companies I loathe (I'm sure I don't need to mention that one is based in Redmond, but I will).

First off, I had to install Photoshop on 2 machines. My partner had bought the upgrade package for her Photoshop a year ago, and encountered problems installing it due to licensing issues (though she was the original and only owner of the old version she had). It sat on our to-do list for a while, and then the theft of the machine put an end to that!

So, we had to get a new Photoshop license. That was as much as £199 or so for an academic license - and you had to provide serious proof for qualification as an academic - certainly far more than for Microsoft Office for example (available to education users for under £100). This package is not a universal application, and will be obsoleted in just a few months by CS3. Installing it was quite painful with many different applications getting installed, (in applications you get Adobe Bridge, Adobe Help Center, and a CS2 folder which has at least 2 applications; Adobe Reader has its own folder; in Utilities Adobe Reader Manager, Adobe Updater and an Adobe Utilities folder. I have no idea what some of these do (eg Adobe Bridge?). The installer also created two processes to be run at login - one which checks for new updates on login for all Adobe products installed. Removing the application from a Mac would be quite difficult methinks.

Now, the upgrade package was wasted, until I decided that I might at least update my own sad Photoshop v4. I had perhaps used this about twice - mainly for conversion of images, but I decided perhaps I'd try to improve some of my photos. The box made no mention of which Photoshops could be upgraded, so I tried it. The installer wanted the old license to be found, so I pointed it at the old Photoshop application. It did not want to do the upgrade. However, I found that entering the license manually gave me a fully authorised copy. My version DID install Adobe Reader version 7.0 something. After installing, the package needed to install updates as well, and this took an age. Less, than a week later, it was telling me my Adobe Reader was out of date and I needed 7.0.7.

OK, perhaps this is all a bit pedantic - after all it's a complex application. But it was my Adobe Reader experience that convinced me they have some serious problems.

My partner was experiencing difficulties with some PDF's, so to find out if it was Preview or Safari, I thought we should download Adobe Reader on her machine. It so happened this was the day that Adobe Reader 8.0 became available. Now, I tend to think of Adobe Reader as a somewhat simple application. But it has become a monster. To install it, you have to download the Adobe Reader Installer. When you install this, it in turn starts an Adobe Reader download which gives you a second installer that you must run. The application itself was over 20MB. Having installed that we noticed that it had taken over the role of displaying PDF's from Preview without asking. I opened up the application to see what was new. I always like to look at an applications Preferences as a guide to what it can do. Adobe Reader has 24 categories of preferences! Adobe has lost the plot I'm afraid. Reader should be a simple pdf viewer that the average user can understand. Anyone without a computing qualification is going to immediately turn off when they see this (incidentally, the preferences categories are just a list of text items - no icons).

Since installing all these things, I've also had to turn off and reject numerous annoying questions/reminders etc from Adobe about everything from making the application(s) default, to checking for updates, etc.

Am I being too harsh on them, or have they forgotten how to put the user first?

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03 December 2006

Christmas Gift Idea (A Book!)

In a diversion from the usual stuff I write about here, I wanted to pass on a recommendation for a cookery book to those interested in such things (or, better perhaps, know someone who is).

The book is called Silk Road Cooking - A Vegetarian Journey (and that's the Amazon US link) by Najmieh Batmanglij. It's also available in hardback. I got it in a real bookshop - at Waterstones in fact - so it is certainly available in the UK too.

Sure, it's a vegetarian cookbook, but don't let that put you off. This book covers recipes from Italy through to China via many countries in between (including just about every -stan you can think of). There are herbs and spices in this that I've never had before. We've tried many dishes from the book and all have been very enjoyable. Not only that, the recipes are quite quick to make too. An additional benefit is the beautiful layout of the book.

You may need access to a Mediterranean or Middle East food shop for some of the more esoteric ingredients, but most you should be able to find at a good shop. (I got one or two from thespiceshop.co.uk in Notting Hill Gate whose proprietor noted she's never seen a savoury dish using Angelica powder!).

This would be a popular gift for any cooks you know! Highly recommended.

(Edited post to add author's name!)

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