HAL #63 – Crusty turmeric bread

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Rain, absorb, grow

Lately it’s been quite rainy, which is probably due to the fact that August in Alabama is crazy humid. The air is full of water, the heat increases the pressure and bam. One, two, sometimes three storms in one day. There’s so much water falling around that it’s hardly surprising how fast everything is growing.

Just a few days ago we had a lunch with some friends. It was a nice restaurant where I was mostly interested in their creative light fixtures, some of the most original I’ve seen in a while:

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After lunch we headed home and upon taking our dog out I noticed them. So. Many. Mushrooms. They were certainly not there a few days earlier, I would’ve noticed them. Huge mushrooms that showed up all of a sudden. So I took my gear and took a few stills, because soon there won’t be much growing going on once the “southern winter” (= mildly warm temperatures, not real cold per se) hits us.

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I even made a little grasshopper friend!

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I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to eat these… they’re growing on ground that is most likely full of chemicals just to look pretty. That said, seeing how alabamian humidity seems to help, I’m now intrigued to try to grow some food myself when we – hopefully – own a new house next year.

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On other news, after agonizing over whether to buy a full frame A7 or keep my current APSC camera, I finally sold my SEL1855 kit-lens on eBay and bought a nice Sigma 30mm f/2.8 prime. Sure, the results won’t be as nice as FF, but I’ve decided the negatives outweigh the benefits in my case and staying APSC will yield much better value/outcomes in both the short and long run. Hopefully that f/2.8 (or my vintage 1976 Nikkor 50mm f/2) will help in isolating subjects further with nice creamy bokeh (all the pictures in this post are from the Nikon lens).

Updating… 100%

It’s been a while! 5 months to be exact. A lot has been happening in this time, which is one of the reasons why I haven’t posted anything in so long. So, I figured I should do an update post to bring everything up to speed. First of all, it’s been now 5+ months since I ordered a try-on of these Warby Parker Felton glasses and I still haven’t decided if I want to buy them or not. I like them but I have a usable pair, so I’m kind of waiting until they break to get new ones. But mine are 5 years old already. Maybe it’s time to buy a pair of glasses even if the old ones aren’t broken yet. I’m easily the most indecisive person on the planet.

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EDUCATION – after 7 years of work, my PhD is finally, officially complete and since May 10th, I have the degree to prove it! It was a lot of hard work, studying, research and overall becoming an academic professional, but it feels good to have finally achieved this level. There’s also something to say about being the first Doctor in the family. Lots of sweat, tears, stress, joy, but mostly stress. Either way, it’s done, moving on. It’s now time to focus on enjoying teaching and working on my research articles whenever time allows. Obligatory degree shot:

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And bonus shot of the actual graduation day. Extra points for Bryan and I being able to graduate and walk together. Not many married couples get to do that.

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WORK – I’ve been working at the current institution for one year on a single-term contract. Graduating from the PhD certainly helped as it facilitated my getting a new position with a more stable 3-year renewable contract. That means Bryan and I get much more security laborally/financially and we can now start thinking about buying a house. Also, there’s extra cool points for being able to teach my courses but refer to myself as Dr. Xabier Granja in the syllabus!

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LIFE – May/June/July were busy months. First we went to San Francisco for a wedding. Then we embarked to Spain for a couple weeks, where we were joined by most of our Chicago friends for what I call Wedding Part 2. To clarify, Bryan and I got married last year but since it was too difficult to get all our families together (and it seemed fairer to do an everybody-or-nobody kind of deal) we just celebrated with our closest friends, which I refer to as Wedding Part 1. So, exactly 1 year and 1 day later, we did Part 2 in Spain: if Part 1 was the ceremony in Chicago, Part 2 was the after-party in a wonderful bar on the top of a cliff that oversees a northern Spanish beach. About 40 people attended between family and friends, most of which won’t be able to make it to the American reception with 90 friends/family this August 14 in Chicago, which we’ll call Wedding Part 3. None of it makes sense… but somehow it all makes sense. All I can tell you is that it would certainly be cheaper to do 1 event on 1 day and 1 set of people, but although we certainly don’t get 3 weddings for the price of one, we do get 3 times the memories. As a bonus, here’s a shot from El Peñón in Sopelana, Spain:

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TECHNOLOGY – finally, I’m abandoning WP. This surely comes as a surprise, but allow me to explain. 5 months ago I mentioned my purchase of a Nexus 4, my initial trial of Android 4.0. I loved the hardware, despised the software. Then, while I was too busy enjoying WP8.1 and dictating texts, reminders and calendar appointments to Cortana, this happened:

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Suddenly, and without warning, Google finally found its design chops with L/5.0/Lollipop. The difference is striking: Android went from horrible to beautiful, from bland to colorful. Google established an excellent design philosophy, actually thought about what they were doing and found inspiration in the material properties of layers and light. The videos at google.com/design are inspiring, but most of all this is thoughtful, elegant design just like I’ve always felt Windows Phone was. The problem is that WP had the design but not the platform; and now Google has the platform and the design. This, paired to the fact that Microsoft is scaling back on mobile hardware/software and that several apps that are important to me were actually eliminated from the store by their publishers, were the last nails on my WP obsession. Good design is worthless if it ceases to be functional. What’s more, just 2 years ago WP offered the best bang for buck with great phones for around $100. Nothing on Android could touch the fluidity, experience, design and affordability of a Lumia 620 or a 520.

In the following 24 months though, something happened: Microsoft stopped trying, probably too busy fixing the mess created with Windows 8 (not a bad decision considering how wonderful Windows 10 has turned out to be). The software ceased to have any new features since 8.1 and Cortana. There are many unacceptable stagnant, easy to fix software oversights: for example, the Battery Saver feature doesn’t auto-setup to kick in at 20%. Once you manually set it up, it won’t actually disable battery saver when you charge the phone next. What? This is a perfect example of how Microsoft has ignored software development on its own platform. Hardware doesn’t fare much better: low-end Lumia phones, once great bargains, started to be cheap. Not affordable, good deals. Just cheap. Cheap screen, cheap build, cheap CPU, inexcusable 512MB RAM in a 1GB world (justified by how well optimized the software was… which is true, but still not an excuse in 2014/2015). I had defended Windows Phones for years as better value when compared to Android, but now this is no longer the case and I’m glad to see Anandtech agrees with me:

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And this is, in a nutshell, what happened. Microsoft stalled when they could absolutely not afford to do so as the 3rd ecosystem, while Google saw what Microsoft had been doing excellently in 2012 with low end phones and struck back: thus the creation of the Moto G and later, more impressively, the Moto E. I’m mostly interested in the latter: I’m a firm believer that the 1st gen of anything should always be skipped, it’s never worth your money. 2nd gen usually shows you what something can become and may even be great, 3rd gen is where things start rocking the market. Indeed, the 1st Moto E was disruptive but could safely be ignored as it sacrificed too much (ergonomics, screen, camera, CPU). 2nd gen Moto E? An impressive second take, one that you can easily evaluate yourselves comparing the innards. After my – granted, wonderful – hardware experience with the Lumia 635, which is cheap as chips, I’ve had a revelation: I don’t need a $400 phone. I don’t need a $300 phone. I could benefit from but don’t necessarily need a $200 phone. The Moto E 2nd gen LTE sells for $99 on Amazon right now and has mostly the same hardware as the lower end Moto G that costs $80 more dollars (SD410, 1GB RAM, IPS screen). So I bought one, because the value in the 2nd gen Moto E is unbeatable. Here’s a proud shot for posterity:

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The value in this device is so great, actually, that I’m considering just buying Moto E’s every year, provided the upgraded models are worth the money and conserve the value. Think that sounds crazy? Now remember there’s millions of people that upgrade their iPhone every year: I can buy 6 Moto Es for the price of 1 iPhone. Annual upgrade cycle doesn’t sound so crazy in the context of the Moto E value (also it’s a great excuse to renew my mom and dad’s phones at a regular interval instead of the potatoes they’re using at the moment).

Finally, laptops. Earlier in the spring I sold my Surface 2. Why? Because Microsoft announced they were effectively abandoning the RT platform and moving onto Windows 10 on a full x86-64 architecture. Knowing this, I was lucky enough to sell it on eBay and recover %80 of the money I originally spent on it. Since then, I have been using Bryan’s old MacBook Air and the experience hasn’t been pretty. It’s not that getting used to the OS X ecosystem was challenging per se, instead… well, a picture is worth a thousand words:

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Nope, that’s not an artistic wallpaper. That’s a heavily crashed LCD, and yup. That’s what I’ve been using for the past half year. Why? Because 10nm Intel Skylake CPUs are coming in October and they’re a pretty big deal, so I didn’t want to waste $700 before better hardware came along (let’s face it: 14nm Broadwell are kind of a joke and not much better than the previous Ivy Bridge. There’s a reason Broadwell is only going to have a 6 month market life, artificially extended to 9 months so Intel doesn’t lose millions in already produced chips). It is perhaps surprising that it hasn’t really been that bad to use this MacBook, now on Windows 10, in such a state. I mostly use the laptop for work, where I just plug it in to a 24″ monitor in my office. When I bring it to classes to take attendance, there’s a nice 40% of the lower-left screen area that’s crack free, so I can fit an Excel window there momentarily. It’s only been a real annoyance when traveling, since this laptop and my phone are really the only mobile devices I have at my disposal. What’s more, upon starting the Fall semester I’ll be getting an iPad 2 for faculty through the University, so the main pain point of this MacBook is removed; so much so that I’m even considering not getting a new laptop and keep using this. But I know I shouldn’t. I should own a normal working laptop. So I’ll probably buy one. And the front runner in that race is:

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Asus UX305. Thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air. Same aluminum build. 9h of battery life. 1080p IPS screen (better than the current MacBook Air). 8GB RAM (what the what?) and 256GB SSD (again, w00t??). Free upgrade to Windows 10 (or by the time I buy it, it’ll probably ship with Windows 10 already). I admit it’s been really hard to not spend the miserly $699 that Asus asks for this machine, but I’m still waiting mostly because I hope/expect Asus will release a Skylake version of this laptop this fall. Maybe even cram in a biometric camera for Windows Hello. We’ll see, but this is the strongest contender by far.

And that’s it for now! Hopefully it won’t take me months to post something here again, but between teaching 5 courses, working on publishing an article and doing other research as a Faculty Fellow, it is likely my schedule will get complicated again. Even so, I should be pretty excited about that new laptop that I hope I won’t be able to avoid writing another post.

Until then.

Found one!

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And its name is Lumia 635. The 735 was the real contender, the one I really wanted, but not at the $300+ price it released, that’s an insult. You may remember what I had to say about it a few months ago about its pros and cons:

635: Cheap. Non-unibody. Health tracking. LTE. VS Bad camera. No front camera. No ambient light sensor. Low-res screen.

So, why did I end up choosing this phone? Simple: the price dropped to a ridiculous $68 on December 20th and at that price, it was too good a bargain to pass. At this point a fully functioning modern smartphone for $68 wasn’t cheap, it was a steal and I’ve been enjoying it for the past 2 months. The non-unibody factor turned up to be no problem at all: this phone is crazy thin and light, whereas my 920 unibody was fat and heavy. The health tracking? Works beautifully and reminds me how little I walk everyday. The LTE is just as fast as it was on my 920. The 512MB RAM certainly isn’t as good as 1GB, but the phone works quite fast and feels speedy – similar to my 920 actually. I’m sure it’d be a bit more responsive with 1GB, but it’s not slow or feels sluggish by any means.

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The negatives get a bit more annoying, mainly the camera. It’s crap, period. It takes passable pictures, but they’re all bad honestly (coming from the 920) and only salvageable for social network posting after I’ve done a quick edit on Photoshop express, even pictures taken in daylight are dull. At least having a bad camera on my phone has rekindled my use of my Sony NEX 5N, so there’s some gain to be had here. Not having a front camera isn’t a problem %99 of the time – I’m not one to take selfies, but hey there’s always those couple times when you want to get a small group shot and it’s just easier seeing the screen… no biggie though. I can turn the phone around to use the main camera and the Lumia selfie app will beep (like crazy) to indicate we’re in the picture. Not perfect, but kinda works. For $68, I’ll put up with it. The lack of ambient sensor is something I thought would really annoy me… not so, honestly. I keep the screen at medium and it’s totally fine 90% of the day. When it’s bright and sunny outside, I switch it to High (I keep the setting on the action center so it’s easy to get to). What’s an improvement, actually, is in bed at night: my 920 turned the brightness down but it was always a bit too bright to be comfortable. With the 635 I can actually specify how low I want the Low level to be (or the mid, or the high) so I turned it real low and its now a pleasure to use in a pitch dark room, or on a car ride at night.

Talking about the screen – it’s beautiful. Sure, it’s no longer 768p like the 920 and that shows, I’m not going to lie: it’s fuzzier and less detailed. It’s also not going at 60hz like the 920’s screen. But hey, it’s still an IPS panel with ClearBlack, contrast is great and the color are actually better than what I was seeing on the 920. Well, at least they look better, deeper and richer to me. Don’t take my word for it, let’s compare (*Note: some shots show heavy fringing on the 635 – this is because the camera is picking up the pixel pattern and since it can resolve the detail it shows that distortion, but that’s not visible at all in real life):

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Side by side, the 920 looks better overall, but remember: I paid $250 for the 920 refurbished (which was already cheap) whereas the 635 cost $68, new. Locked to T-Mobile, sure, but just last week I called and they got my phone unlocked with no problem at all, so I’ll be able to use it when my husband and I fly to Spain this summer – and eventually give this phone to my mom for good while I’ll renew to a Windows 10 phone. So, essentially, it’s a liberated phone for $68. Beat that value, iPhone/any-Android-ever. I was never a huge fan of the original matte white case T-Mobile included so I spent $6 and got this blue case on eBay.

So there you have it: a good phone for anybody who just wants a nice, decent smartphone for normal use. It’s a stopgap for me as I really want a better camera and an AMOLED screen once Windows 10 phones are released, but it’s a perfectly fine phone that, for the price, is an amazing value.

Fixing Surface for its third incarnation

This week some interesting news came out about the 3 different SKUs that Windows 9/Threshold will apparently have. What we’ll get is:

1) Desktop version with an actual desktop and a modern/win32 hybrid Start menu.

2) Desktop-less Mobile version that will run on all ARM hardware (both phones and tablets) and maybe on Intel Atom CPUs.

3) Business version that might allow disabling the modern (by modern I’m referring to the WinRT framework, but I’ll keep calling it modern to avoid WinRT and Windows RT confusions) environment completely.

This is good news all around. For starters, mobile users have absolutely no need for the desktop: on a 10″ device, the desktop is awful, targets are too tiny to touch with fingers and mousing around isn’t very comfortable in such limited real state. In the same vein, desktop users can use modern but it’s not a very comfortable experience in the framework’s rough state these days. Many people shout to the winds about how horrible modern is for the future, not realizing their blindness: a UI framework is never a static structure, it adapts and changes to improve with time and experience. Modern is literally 2 years old: remember how awful win32 was in the 80s? Took them until 1995 to make it something great. We face the same scenario with modern and its WinRT language: it’s inadequate and weak now, but give it a few years and it’ll start picking up APIs, libraries, functionality. It will most assuredly replace win32 at some point, just not anytime soon. I find it ridiculous that people decry and condemn a 2 year old piece of software in this instant-gratification society spoiled by the past decade of amazingly lucky constant successes. The iPod-iPhone-iPad 1-2-3 punch is an anomaly in technology history, an incredibly fortunate one for Apple and the rest of the market. Mark my words: this is not going to happen again for a long time. These huge market impacts come about once every decade, we’ve had 3 in that time period. The slowdown has already started – noticed anything breaking released since the iPad was launched? Nope. Get used to it. Great things normally take time, and WinRT needs time to become great. And no, the smartwatch is not the next big thing.

So, what does this have to do with Surface?

Plenty, specially after the recent news of the 3 Threshold SKUs. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus only on the mobile release that will run on any ARM CPU. This version is the fusion of Windows Phone and Windows RT we’ve been hearing about for months. Some call this the death of RT (playing into the aforementioned inadequacy cry) but that’s missing the point. Microsoft now has 3 platforms to maintain: Phone, RT and x86-64, which is unnecessarily excessive. x86-64 will remain and Phone and RT will merge. This is no death for any of the platforms, I like to think of it as a rebirth: while their names might fade away, the actual code will be fused bringing the best of WP and RT together. That means both app libraries will combine and we’ll also get Cortana, notification system and a big etc. Since RT is big and heavy just like the x86-64 version, it makes more sense that the main base will be WP to which all RT goodness will be added, then both will be enhanced once fused as 1 (a 32GB tablet would now have 30GB of free space instead of the current 14 or so). Also, this would mean that even a sub-par hardware configuration like my Surface (1st gen) would work quite well, as it’s still a quad core ARM CPU with 2gb of RAM: barely minimal for RT but plenty to run a WP/RT lighter OS. But I digress. This fused SKU can breathe renewed life into Surface amplifying its app store, making the OS lighter and faster and getting rid of the unnecessary desktop in hybrids. This, however, can only happen once the modern version of Office is ready for release, meanwhile Microsoft can’t take away the one feature that makes Surface special (literally why consumers like me bought the machine, because 99% of my work consists of Word, Excel and Powerpoint).

The new hybrid OS would however imply changes to the Surface philosophy. While both the ARM and x86-64 versions would be one Windows 9, the market targets will be very different, bringing to memory the days when business and consumer Windows were a big differentiator. Many have asked for an Atom based Surface but I suspect this has not yet happened due to market tension: Microsoft has acknowledged they do not intend to compete with OEMs, so I expect for them to keep the Surface line a premium one with Core CPUs and higher price tags. This also brings into question other recent rumors of Microsoft abandoning Surface for its recently acquired Lumia brand. Now, what I consider most logical here is that the mobile SKU of 9, based on ARM CPUs, would be used in Lumia devices, both phones and tablets while the x86-64 variant would remain in the Surface Pro line. This would indeed do away with the Surface (on ARM) line, but then again it’s been quite a market flop. The Pro line, in comparison, has been quite the success, especially with the recent Surface Pro 3 that has delighted reviewers everywhere. It would make good branding sense to keep Surface just as a Pro line, for people who want to do serious work, and use the Lumia brand for ARM based hardware: phones and tablets for play and some work (hence the need for the modern version of Office).

With that said, what does a Surface 3 even look like? First of all, the name: I don’t see Microsoft doing this but it wouldn’t be too far fetched that they’d consolidate ARM phones and tablets under the Lumia branding, calling the Surface 3 something like the Microsoft Lumia 1 (as they seem pretty obsessed with One branding lately), it wouldn’t get confused with the phone model numbers in the hundreds and thousands. I’d keep the main characteristics of the non-pro Surface and Lumia aesthetic: from Surface I’d keep the kickstand (full flex inherited from SP3) with the Windows button on the right side, a 3:2 screen that fits the same chassis as S1 and S2 so the current Type covers are still usable. From Lumia I’d keep the colors: make the tablets available in a bunch of different colors, and boom, you have a successful Lumia/Surface hybrid that feels like a more fun, smaller, tablety version of Surface Pro which is designed for consumption while letting you work lightly on modern Office. For illustration:

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Surface 3 mockup2That’s how I see MS evolving: Lumia phones and tablets using mobile Threshold SKU fusing WP/RT, Surface Pro tablets using x86-64. The phones don’t need to change much, just keep evolving. Lumia tablets that replace ARM Surfaces would reflect Lumia and Surface Pro qualities (playful, colorful, consumption-oriented, light work capable, 3:2 screen, button on side) while Surface Pros would remain where they have succeeded, in the professional/business market. Add to this that with Threshold all apps will use mostly the same codebase and you have the write-once-use-everywhere dream of universal apps come true, both stores combine to have around 450,000 apps that you can use in your phone, tablet or desktop. Not only is this a great direction for Windows in general, but it’ll be a great push for both the phones and tablets, besides propelling the WinRT framework overall. As for how the WP/RT merge will look like? I wouldn’t mind it being a mixture of WP/RT user interfaces while at the same time distancing themselves from the Windows modern aesthetic so the regular consumer knows it’s no longer Windows 8.x but something different:

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This mockup, however, seems like it won’t be the case. We’ve heard that the start screen is most likely going away for everyone, desktop and tablet users, to be replaced by a hybrid start menu kind of thing that can act as a more-or-less full screen expandable start menu of sorts. In my mind, this is what that means to combine both approaches in a bid to appease touch and desktop users:

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This seems like a sensible combination. The principles of the start screen, flexibility, customization, touch convenience and grouping are preserved, while desktop users are not booted to a different experience. Since many users hate occluding what’s in the desktop, well, they probably wouldn’t populate their hybrid start menu as much as I did, although parts of the desktop are still visible here. Microsoft would be wise to provide optional transparency controls though, it can never hurt them to give users more choice if occluding what’s behind the start menu bothers them so much. These kind of changes can work. Now they need proper execution, branding, marketing and software support. Get to it Microsoft.

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