Friday, 27 June 2008

Seems like Bill Gates got out at just the right time.

Unless you, like me, are a bit of a geek, you'll be unlikely to have seen the news recently that Microsoft have stopped PC manufacturers from selling Windows XP. This was always on the cards - indeed, the original plan was to stop XP sales by the end of January, and it was only when customers complained loudly that the date was extended until the end of June.

Despite not having actually reached that date yet, a lot of manufacturers have already stopped selling XP. I wandered into my local PC World yesterday (I'm probably going to get a new desktop pretty soon – my poor little laptop is coughing and wheezing more than ever just at the moment) to see what the situation was, and the girl on the customer support desk – who, to make a completely irrelevant observation, was extremely attractive – informed me that the only way they could give me a PC with Windows XP on it would be to sell me a Vista PC, then take Vista off it and "upgrade" it to XP.

I'd heard of this trick before, but on being informed that I'd have to pay the cost of Vista, the cost of XP, and an extra fee for switching between the two, I decided that this really wasn't an option. No matter how pretty their customer support reps may be, PC World are going to have a hard time selling me a system with a massive markup on it just because I want an older piece of software.

The really unfortunate part of the whole issue is that the people who get hurt most by this are the retailers, like PC World. Microsoft itself might take a small hit in sales, but its business customers will probably make up for that for the most part. The retailers, though, are going to have quite a few people like me simply turning away and either going online to the few places that do still have stock of XP, or going away from Windows altogether into the arms of Apple or Linux.

Personally, I'm going to try the online route, but the idea was always to switch to Linux as my primary OS. Wine has now reached version 1.1, so it's possible that I can get away without using Windows at all. And if I – a technically literate person, but no technical genius – can realise that, then so can the very many other people like me, and Microsoft are going to see a fall in their market share. It seems like Microsoft are increasingly determined to shoot themselves not only in their foot, but in the feet of anyone who comes anywhere near them.

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Sunday, 15 June 2008

Summer in the City: Gherkin and Churchin'

It's been a while since I've posted any of my photos up here, hasn't it? That's a problem I can solve very simply, by starting a new occasional photo series. (Yes, occasional as in "may vanish without trace", I'm afraid. This isn't the return of Picture of the Week, and won't be unless you really want to see a slightly different photo of the inside of an office every Sunday.)

The series is called "Summer in the City", and as the name suggests, it'll be about London. The reason is that, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I'm new to this city, so it makes sense that as I discover new bits of it, so can you. The "summer" bit is so that it doesn't go on too long and bore you all senseless. (You can just imagine it..."look, here's what Tower Bridge looks like in October!")

The first photo in the series is one that I took last Monday. I very much doubt that I need to tell you the name of this building, but just in case you're completely unfamiliar with London, that's the Gherkin on the left. It's the 6th tallest building in London and the second tallest in the financial district (or "The City", as it's somewhat arrogantly called), and I think it's incredibly beautiful. Weird, certainly, but as a piece of engineering and as an icon it's pretty much without parallel, at least inside London.

Particularly poignant about this building is that it's on the site of the Baltic Exchange building, a Grade-II listed piece of architecture that was damaged beyond repair in a bomb attack by the Provisional IRA in 1992. Just to its right in the photo is the church of St Andrew Undershaft, a 500-year old construction that has survived Puritan rioting, the World War II bombings, and yes, the 1992 Provisional IRA bomb. Both buildings are extremely attractive in their own way, and their history suggests facing down destruction and violence in different ways – the church has pushed through and survives, battered but still standing, while the Gherkin has risen from almost complete destruction to something tall, glittering and innovative.

Oh, and they both look awesome at dusk.

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Friday, 13 June 2008

Yes, I am indeed taking an unusual interest in sport for once. Roll on the Olympics!

I hate to say "I told you so".

Actually, no I don't. I told you so. I said, way back in November 2007, that Euro 2008 would be far more enjoyable sans England, and here we are after five days' play, with a whole bunch of extremely good teams, no clear sign of who's going to win, and absolutely no stress on my part.

OK, so there have been some teams so far who are more of a burden on the tournament than a joy. Greece has been a surprise entry into this category, playing a strategy that appeared to consist largely of passing the ball between their back three and hoping that it would suddenly teleport into their opponent's net. On the other hand, we've witnessed the highly enjoyable spectacle of a match played practically underwater. For those of you not paying attention, that was Switzerland vs. Turkey, a match that looked like being a bit dull until torrential rain sent the players careening all over the pitch as if it was a pinball table (and, ironically, stopping the ball dead every time it travelled more than a couple of yards).

And then, of course, we've had tonight's match, Netherlands vs. France. These two have great histories as footballing nations - it's a rare international tournament when the Dutch don't breeze at least into the quarter-finals, and it's only a few short years since the French were completely unbeatable. What's more, both teams boast incredibly good upfront players (Ruud van Nistelrooy and Thierry Henry in particular), almost guaranteeing some sparky goalmouth action.

True to form, the match was superb – certainly one of the best I've seen for some time (although that's not saying much). The thing is, had I been rooting for either team it wouldn't have been half as much fun. Of course I'd have been very happy if I was supporting the Dutch, but having the French pull back to within one goal with a superb strike shortly into the second half would have piled on the worry. I'd have been biting my nails every time Henry looked like getting near the ball, despite his obvious rustiness at the moment. And, of course, if I'd been supporting the French I'd have been dashing my string of onions to the ground in disgust and vowing never to wear my stripy jersey and jaunty beret ever again.

In short, Euro 2008, just as I'd hoped, is turning out to be highly enjoyable. Maybe England should make a habit of staying out of these things.

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Wednesday, 4 June 2008

I wonder, would a bus driver let you on if you just waved some blue cardboard at the Oyster reader and shouted "BEEP!"?

So it's been some time since I posted here. At least, it feels like a long time – that would be because I have now moved to a new city and started a new job, and things are still so weird that my perception of time has been doing strange things. I haven't abandoned this blog, though. Hopefully once things have got more sorted out, I'll be able to ramp the posting rate back up again. Until then, there may be some dead air on here for a while, punctuated with the odd musing. Like this one.

The city in question that I've moved to is London. It's not a place that I know a whole heap about; indeed, up until now it's been pretty much "that place you go through on the way to wherever it was you were actually going". (For those of you outside the UK – it's almost impossible to get anywhere in the south of England without going through London at some point.) That means that I've had no chance to get used to it; however, after a week of living in Enfield, I'm just beginning to get a feel for how it works. Here's some of my observations.

First, Greater London is massive. I went right into the centre of the city last Saturday, travelling only on buses (I haven't been paid yet, so I'm travelling cheap right now), and it took the best part of two hours. For the record, that's longer than it took on the train when I lived in Essex. The outer bits of the city are so large, in fact, that they don't feel like a city. Enfield feels very much like it could be Anywheresville, a generic smallish town with all that that usually entails. It's almost as if these small towns are huddling together for warmth, creating a huge conglomerate out of completely different bits.

Bizarrely, given the first fact, central London is tiny. The bus route I was on took me right into Trafalgar Square, from where you can stand on the steps of the National Gallery and see Big Ben (or to be more accurate, the clock tower on the Palace of Westminster that houses Big Ben) and the London Eye without even moving. Walk south for a minute or so, and you can go through Admiralty Arch and find yourself at one end of the Mall, with St. James's Park stretching off to your left and Buckingham Palace staring you right in the face. Go round the edge of the park and you can walk back up Whitehall, poking your nose in at the (extremely heavily-guarded) end of Downing Street to say hello to Gordon Brown, shortly before passing nearly every major building in the political life of the United Kingdom.

You might think, therefore, that with central and Greater London being so different, there's not much tying them together. There is at least one thing, though, and that's the transport. Where most cities seem to put in a public transport network as something of an afterthought, in London it is an incredible achievement. You noticed, I assume, that it was possible for me to travel on buses all the way from Enfield to the middle of the city and back out again? That entire journey cost me £3, and it would have stayed at £3 if I had hopped on and off buses the entire day.

If I'd chosen to take the Tube instead (the oldest and most extensive underground railway network in the world, by the way) that would have cost slightly more, but not a whole lot. And, thanks to the mildly Orwellian but still rather funky Oyster cards, it would have been incredibly easy. London is one of the few places in the UK where having a car is not a convenience, but a downright liability – even outside the congestion charge zones (a good idea in principle, although I'm still uneasy about the civil liberties implications unless they have a seriously good data protection policy) it's much, much cheaper and more convenient to use public transport.

I'm still not in love with London. Walking around it, I came to the conclusion that it is a great city, in the classical sense of "great" – it really has to be, given the amount of history that's taken place here – but it's not a nice city. I don't feel as safe here as I did in Essex (although ironically I'm probably less likely to be mugged here), and I certainly don't feel as safe as I did in Oxford. It'll be a while before I'm used to it. Until then, though, you'll be able to find me, emerging mole-like from an Underground station, blinking in wonderment at the strange things around me and wondering how the hell I'm going to make it back home.

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