Monthly Archives: November 2012

Glasgow’s Christmas market

For many years now there’s a Christmas market in Glasgow. It has in the past been based in George Square, around the ice rink and the other Christmas decorations that appear there each year. A mix of stalls from around rural Scotland plus numerous ones in from all over continental Europe. However for the last year or so it’s been down in St Enoch’s Square. Having it there beside St Enoch’s shopping centre means that for your serious shopaholic there’s an even greater choice of places demanding the attention of your wallet or purse, all in quite a small area!

As size goes, it’s nothing like as large as I’ve seen down in Manchester or Birmingham, but it does bring in a bit of variety and non-local shopping potential to the city centre. For the cold and hungry shopper there’s always been plenty to eat (and drink) and lots of relatively unusual trinkets and gifts to buy as presents for others.

However this year Christmas market there seems to be far fewer stalls there, especially fewer in from Europe. I guess the ever increasing cost of transport added to general consumer belt tightening means that for many traders it’s no longer worth the risk of heaving their goods half way across Europe only to find recession hit shoppers keeping their wallets and purses firmly closed, so they’re then having to heave a whole mass of unsold goods back again.

A shame, lets hope for better next year.

Voice recognition, Siri and Google Now.

It must have been well over 10 years ago when I first played with voice recognition and dictation software on my home PCs. I experimented with it as a lazy way of getting my essays done for a degree course I was doing. It were quite fun and did work, however they required a lot of effort, were not that reliable, and overall I thought not worth the effort, so in the end I was back to fingers on keyboard.

I’m not sure when voice activation for initiating calls and texts on mobile phones arrived, but it’s been around for a few years, however I’ve never yet met anyone who has actually seriously used them.

Siri was first brought to my attention when Apple included it as part of the iPhone 4S. Here we had an ‘intelligent personal assistant’ that should be able to recognise most commands and instructions which are given in the user’s natural language style, and then to respond accordingly. The trick with Siri compared to earlier systems was to transfer the language interpretation demand (and processing requirement) from the local device to Apple’s various data processing servers. My Apple hardware (3GS and iPad 2) could not run Siri, but again those people I know with appropriate hardware played with it to begin with, but once the novelty wore off now rarely use it.

This brings us to ‘today’ and owning a device with both Google’s Now and Samsung’s S Voice. Both of these have worked far better than expected. Both when given a phone action command will carry out that action. The only real difference between them is when you give them a general question, Now usually gives its responses as Google web page links and only occasionally speaking the answer, where as S Voice tends to speak the answer and only if it gets stuck directs you to relevant web page search results.

I think here is something I could actually start using, especially for web searches. It’s still far from perfect, but has reached a stage where I’m starting to get results more quickly by asking it rather than by using the keyboard to enter in my request.

I wonder how long it will be before it is constantly monitoring your speech as a background task, so that if you are discussing arranging a meeting with a colleague it will automatically put an entry into your calendar, and if that meeting then involves you talking about ordering up some spare parts it will already be scanning local suppliers for availability and prices. Or if you’re discussing something the government doesn’t like…. soon Big Brother may be closer to you than you realise!

Mac or Windows – its upgrade time.

It’s almost decision time, but will it be Mac or will it be windows?

My original move to using a Mac was relatively indirect. I, like many people, had started my video editing with Windows MovieMaker. However soon upgraded to a basic budget priced editing package which did me for nearly a year. I could see it had a potential greater than what I was using it for, but there was very little support and virtually no tutorials around for it.

So time for something new. I hunted around on the web to find sites with good general video editing tutorials. Came across the IzzyVideo site where there was some excellent Final Cut Pro 7 and Final Cut Express examples. FCP 7 was both a bit of an overkill for my uses plus too expensive, however the education price of Express was within my budget. Next, what did Express run on; OS X. This coincided with a need for replacement hardware anyway, but as I couldn’t afford a new Mac I ended up with a second-hand MacBook. So began my Apple adventure. I’ve ended up with a 3GS iPhone, iPad, MacBook Air, and with an external monitor and keyboard attached, the MacBook used as a desktop machine.

However the MacBook is now seriously showing its age. One reason for using it as a desktop machine is that its battery is screwed. It has trouble running some programs and others won’t install because of its outdated graphics, its processor is constantly being hammered to death (cooling fan often freaking out!) and it’s got it’s fill of RAM but needs more.

Add to that my 3GS, as good as it is, is also showing its age. It’s battery still gives OK life however there are cracks creeping up its back cover, the On/Off button is missing, many new iOS features and more and more Apps coming out will not run on it… You get the idea.

So it’s decision time. Stay with Apple or move on? Apple does make some excellent products, but they are very overpriced (even after education discount). Are they worth the price premium?

The thing is Apple appears to be losing its innovative edge; at one time it was the undisputed leader in design an innovation, but now seems to be playing catch-up.
Going back a few years, the first iPod revolutionised the portable music scene (and helped to pull the company back from a very poor financial situation), the first iPhone showed what a difference a good interface can make, the iPad opened up the world of the tablet. The MacBook Air showed how to make a really nice portable laptop, iMacs had their own unique design.

However so many recent product releases have just been incremental rather than trend-setting. Android now more than competes with its smoothness of system operation. Many other screens give a better viewing experience that a Retina display. In numbers, Google’s Play store competes with Apple’s App store and is catching up in quality and range of Apps, Google’s Now voice search more than competes with Siri. A year or so ago Apple would never have released something like its Maps App in such a poor state of dysfunction.

My phone contract renewal time coincided with the Apple autumn announcement season, so I had been waiting with the proverbial bated breath to see what was coming up, and as a result I’m now the proud owner of a Samsung Galaxy Note 2.

There were two ‘final things’ that made me not stay iPhone. First, I had hoped the iPhone 5 would have been something exciting and new, not just a slightly stretched screen and updated processor. Second, iCloud. Over the last year I’ve moved from just being an internet user to that of using the cloud for more and more for my data storage and services, and iCloud just does not do it for me. Google was born in the cloud and inherently seems to do this sort of thing so much better than Apple.

This leaves me thinking about what may happen early next year when I look towards a computer upgrade.

The new iMacs look very tempting, but at a price. However I find myself using Adobe’s CS6 photo products more and more, so for video moving across to CS6 or even Avid’s Media Composer (both Adobe and Avid are cross-platform and both have competitive education prices) would give me the option to stay Mac, but not the absolute need which staying with FCP X would require.

For less than an iMac I can get a similarly specified non-Apple machine, either Adobe or Avid software, and have money to spare for extras like external back-ups. So, as much as I like Macs it’s far from certain that I’ll stay Mac for my computing.

(One final thing, I’ve been surprised at how quickly Macs age. I have a 10 year old Windows laptop which is still in regular productive use. Ten years ago means G3 powered iBooks. I wonder how many of them are still as useful?)

Camera Accessories

Three of my favourite camera accessories,

the sort of things that if they went missing or broke I’d be down the shops the same day to get replacements.

For video work (even though I only do basic YouTube type stuff) I really do like using a proper Rode external microphone. The ones built into your usual video camera are at best ‘adequate’, the ones in your video capable dSLRs are usually terrible. Getting the sound nicely sorted can make such a difference; to be able to clearly hear the story being told or to enjoy the music without having to struggle is more important that having a perfectly crisp image.

If being used outside, then going with the microphone is its windshield, a usually grey coloured furry cover, often known as a ‘dead cat’. This things really can cut out the wind noise, that loud ‘woosh’ sort of sound that can so overpower the sound you want to be recording.

My Manfrotto MP3-D01 fold flat mini tripod adds an extra dimension to slow shutter speed photography. It’s small enough and light enough to be left attached to the bottom of my camera and provides basic tripod support where ever I am. It’s three rather stubby legs can be adjusted to provide a stable platform on almost any surface. Great for night shots or where you want to prop your camera up at a slightly odd angle. It means you can also take ground level pictures but without putting your camera directly onto what could be a rather wet or dirty surface. Small, light, it’s one of those ‘fit and forget’ type devices.

Not that often used, but when videoing in low light situations (I do like to get out to castles and that sort of thing) my battery powered LED lighting brick (F&V Z-Flash) is so useful. Attaches to my camera with a hot-shoe adapter, it means that whenever I go into a relatively dark room I have enough light for my camera not to have a fit ramping up ISO setting or doing weird thing with aperture or shutter speeds.

It runs for hours off its (rechargeable) battery pack so I don’t need to worry about constantly having to switch it on and off. It’s also useful for still photography as a fill-in light and helps to take the edge of the harshness you can get from flash. (Also a great source of light at home in the event of a power cut!!!)