Monday, July 06, 2015

Windows 10 Start Menu Review

No comments:
This review was written for Windows 10 Home Insider Preview Build 10162.

With Windows 10, Microsoft has reintroduced the start menu to its flagship operating system. This is a welcome change and I'm excited to get rid of the terrible Windows 8 start screen.

The Start Menu now looks like the Windows 7 and the Windows 8 Start Menus had a baby.

The Windows 10 Start Menu

One the left hand side, we have the familiar frequently used apps from Windows 7. But on the right hand side we have the Windows 8 style app launchers with live tiles. This marriage is somewhat useful. It was hand to be able to press the Windows key and be able to see the weather. But, I suspect, some people might continue to be confused by this setup. How exactly does one distinguish the Windows Universal apps from the traditional desktop apps?

The Start Menu has transparency, just like the rest of the Taskbar theme. There is a blur effect added to the background which improves readability. It can be resized both vertically and horizontally. Horizontal resizing happens in steps, which creates better harmony with the Windows Universal apps launchers.

The new Start Menu can be resized both horizontally and vertically.

Like Windows 7, some of the frequently used items have menus. In Windows 7 these would show the frequently used file or subcategories for that app or shortcut. In Windows 10, these show the jumplists for the corresponding apps. I actually like this change for the visual consistency that it brings. Jumplists can be configured by the app itself and should be canon.

Child menus for items in Start Menu show the jump list for that item.

The Taskbar jump lists are the same as Start Menu jump lists.

The right click menus have also been expanded. App items now show an 'uninstall' action.

Right click menus in Start have been expanded to include additional options such as 'Uninstall'.
The right click menu on the Start button itself is vastly expanded, giving access to several settings items and shortcuts to Task Manager, Search and Run among others.

Right click on the Start button is also vastly expanded.

One of the most important tasks of the Start Menu in Windows 7 was search. Search in Windows 7 was not bad but it was somewhat lacking. Often, it would not be able to find files on my desktop unless I typed in the exact file name. On other desktop and mobile operating systems, the game has been upped significantly by the likes of Siri, Google Now and Spotlight on OSX. 

Microsofts answer to this is Cortana. Cortana has been neatly integrated into the Start Menu. The search box has been made more prominent by moving it from Start to the Taskbar itself. However, it can still be activated by tapping the Windows key and typing, just like Windows 7. Triggering search hides the Start Menu and presents the dedicated Cortana UI. 

Search, along with Cortana gets its own dedicated UI.

Cortana is probably a topic of a separate review. Here I will just look at the desktop search features.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that search can now has has various built in utilities such as calculator, unit conversion, time and weather. This is no doubt powered by the Cortana engine.

Unit conversion in search.

Search time around the world.

Look at weather.

Make calculations.
Search overall feels terrific. It lists both files on your desktop and searches within apps. (For example, any available apps within the Windows Store.) Web searches are also integrated and links open in your browser. Search is fast and responsive. Of course, as with all tools of this nature there are privacy concerns. There doesn't seem to be a good way to turn online search off. However, you can manage and delete the data Cortana collects about you in your Microsoft account.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

No comments:
It is funny that I read Robinson's Red Mars almost back to back with Andy Weir's The Martian. Red Mars is pretty much the antithesis of The Martian. One is a tale of survival. The other is the tale of settling down, making a home. One is about a single person overcoming overwhelming odds. The other, about a hundred trying to overcome their own limitations. One is about the individual, the other about society.

It is this last aspect of Red Mars that most attracted me. The novel starts off this the idea that if Mars was to be colonized, we'd have to send a sizable population to setup an outpost. And almost immediately, this population would form a society with it's own internal social structures and politics. The first half of the novel spectacularly develops this idea. Robinson's command of character is flawless. We hear the story from the point of several members of the 'first hundred' - a group of highly talented and able people sent on a colonizing mission to Mars. We learn about the different agendas and priorities these characters have about Mars and by proxy what humanity feels about their own planet Earth.

You can escape earth, but how can you escape humanity? This seems to be central dramatic tension of Red Mars. Human frailty travels with us wherever we go. The hunger for power, jealousy and fanaticism travel with us. How will humanity deal with it's own fallibility?

Robinson doesn't have any optimistic answer to this depressing question. The only answer is - humanity manages to function and even achieve something despite these limitations. Perhaps that is real hope.

The second half of the novel veers off from these, more philosophical, musings. It focuses instead on some Orson Scott Card like near-future socio-political speculation. Robinson predicts Transnational corporations which he seems to think is what multinational companies would develop into. There is north vs south politicking going on back on earth over oil and resources in Antarctica. India and Pakistan are going to nuclear war against each other.

Frankly, this part of the novel is not only hard to buy but also seems a little dated given the novel was published over 20 years ago. World geopolitics has changed in drastic and rather unpredictable ways since then.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis for Programming Languages

No comments:
An interesting article but flawed, IMHO.

The central thesis seems to be that programming languages shape the programming culture. But even going by the examples cited in the article, the author gets the causation all wrong.

Both Facebook and Twitter changed languages when they grew too big and their needs and possibly the corporate culture changed. Culture change caused a shift in languages not the other way around.

I also find it interesting that tactics that work well in the early stages of a startup (Move Fast and Break Things) do not work well as the company matures. So much for people wanting behemoths such as Microsoft or Google to move faster and be more innovative. Not going to happen. And if it does happen, it would make this companies implode overnight.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! by Dibakar Banerjee

No comments:
It is hard to live up to nostalgia. Byomkesh Bakshi is nostalgia distilled and concentrated by time. The story is immensely popular among native Bengali speakers. But even in the Hindi belt he has been immortalized in the Rajat Kapoor led Doordarshan series of the 90s. Thus, the expectations the 2015 adaptation by Dibakar Banerjee faced were of Himalayan proportions.

How do you live up to nostalgia? By not catering to it at all. Right from the opening sequence, the movie upends all expectations. Sushant Singh Rajput looks nothing like Rajat Kapoor. Kapoor's Byomkesh was poised, mature and in command. Rajput's is young, excitable and bumbling. But that's that point.

The film narrates the journey of a young Byomkesh who is bored with his life to the point of playing carrom with himself. There's a fledgling love interest which isn't really panning out. Perhaps all this has to do with his terrible social graces. In this state of utter loser-dom, he is approached by Ajit Bandopadhyay (who will later grow to be the Watson to his Holmes) to solve the case of the disappearance of his father.

Byomkesh embarks upon the investigation with gusto. He is driven in part by the prospect of getting handsomely paid - enough to marry the love interest that's soon going to get married to a (presumably rich) doctor. But mostly he's driven by his own obsession. Byomkesh cannot resist a good mystery.

And eventually his becomes his foil. Without giving too much up, the audience discovers that Byomkesh is ultimately being used by men much more powerful and cunning than he is. The plot spans multiple themes - drug trade, femme fatales, politics, WWII and freedom fighters. Byomkesh finds himself in deeper and deeper holes but manages to save the world in the end (of course!).

And over the period of the movie, he grows. I really liked the development of the chemistry between Byomkesh and Ajit. Byomkesh' growth as a detective and a person is also well done. One shortcoming of the movie was that there were too many peripheral characters which get introduced but aren't put to much use later on. The film could also have used tighter editing.

The soundtrack, besides being absolutely delightful, is also one of the way audience expectations are completely turned on their heads. Gone are the surreal tones of the 90s TV show. We are hit hard with a blood pumping heavy metal score recorded with independent artists and giving a much needed voice to the upcoming Bengali rock scene.

The visuals are impeccable. Every frame a painting indeed. The atmosphere is immersive - transporting the audience to 1940s Calcutta like no film has ever done. This alone is the biggest strength of the movie. The sound editing is impressive. Despite sitting in an American suburban movie theater, I couldn't help but feel like I was back in India at moments.

The dialog, though, was weak at times. I don't know why but I had the feeling that at least some of it was written first in English and then translated to Hindi without much thought. However, the script was very solid. Usually I often have trouble following detective fiction plot but that wasn't an issue here. And the final threat that Byomkesh had to face felt really big and credible. The backdrop of WWII was a clever ploy that lend sufficient gravity to the dangers our protagonists had to face.

People are going to get very upset with me for saying this but I think Dibakar Banerjee has managed to do with Byomkesh Bakshy what Guy Ritchie failed to do with his 2009 Sherlock adaptation.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov

No comments:
I have always been a big Asimov fan. I've read almost all of his work. (He has been extremely prolific so it's hard to be sure.) Or at least all of his science fiction work. Recently I decided to revisit some of the old classics.

Pebble in the Sky was a big disappointment. The writing is clunky and full of old writing styles that make it hard to read. The casual sexism bothered me. I thought it wouldn't bother me because I know that it was written at a time when such sexism was acceptable. But it does bother me a lot. There is one single female character in the entire book and she has no agency at all. In fact, she actually asks the man she's interested in to 'put his arms around her' to protect her in case of trouble. The man is question is constantly talking about bashing someone's teeth in if they threaten to disrespect her in any way.

The book is also a stark reminder of how much our world has changed because of the internet. People in this novel still carry paper money around even thought it's 50,000 years into the future. Books have to be read on book projectors. Of course, Asimov couldn't have predicted the internet in the 50s. Still, it makes the books strange to read. Which makes me wonder if most science fiction would age this badly.