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Tuesday
Aug032010

Thoughts on my next computer

Source: C|Net

Every 3 years or so I find myself needing to buy a new computer. Mostly to ensure I keep up-to-date with the latest version of Windows, but also because generally speaking 3 years is about what you should expect from a computer in terms of speed and reliability. At least when we're talking about a primary work machine, of course - I am not someone to chuck out a perfectly functioning PC just because it's more than 3 years old. No, I tend to re-use my old primary machines in secondary machine ways. An example of this is my 5 year old Dell work laptop, which is now on its last legs as a media centre PC. The thing is still on its original Windows XP installation, which in itself is a marvel of sheer luck!

It also happens to be that I aim to get my new PC around election time every 3 years, which means this month I am looking at getting a new PC, a Windows 7 PC, to replace my current HP Windows Vista laptop. The aim is quite simple - get something that is fairly cutting edge, offers decent value for money, and is enough of an improvement over the previous machine to ensure it has a certain "wow" factor.

But in any discussion about what to buy, I need to be able to articulate what it is that I want to do with the PC I buy. Well, here's my rough list of what I want to be able to do with it, based on what I do with my current PC:

  • Surf the World Wide Web (including watching Flashed-based web content at HD resolution without hitting resource issues)
  • Use the Windows Live Essentials suite of applications (e-mail, instant messaging, photo & video editing)
  • Accomplish some basic Office work, such as Word, Excel, Powerpoint, OneNote et al
  • Access Twitter (using the gorgeous MetroTwit client - check it out if you're looking for a great Windows Twitter client!)
  • Download audio and video podcasts (using Microsoft's excellent Zune desktop client)
  • Download the latest TV shows from Channel BT (and leave the client open to seed the downloaded files)
  • Play some occasional PC gaming (via Valve's Steam application)

So, all in all, not a hugely demanding list of requirements. All of these I can do right now with my current PC, but sadly it is quite the sluggish process, and as time passes I am finding myself becoming more and more frustrated by performance issues. This is particularly so as I run a heavy multi-tasked environment, with most of the above applications all running 24/7, at the same time. So I think more than anything I need a decent CPU, and lots of RAM under the hood. The 2gb of RAM I have right now sadly just ain't cutting the mustard like it used to.

And there's another factor to consider, and that is PC gaming. While I am not what you would call a hard-core gamer, I do enjoy playing RTS and 3D shoot-em-ups when I can, and yet this year I am planning on making the switch to the Xbox 360 as my primary gaming platform. The reason for this is simple - I am wanting to have a full Microsoft ecosystem existing here by the time Windows Phone 7 comes out at Christmas, to ensure I get the best value out of my various purchases. So this means having a Windows 7 PC, and an Xbox 360 with Xbox Live account. Which means I am not necessarily going to need a high-end gaming PC, which is certainly good news for the bottom line.

The other factor I have to consider is do I get another laptop, or get a desktop PC? My current PC is a laptop, a high-end 17" desktop replacement. Which was a good idea at the time, since it meant I could easily transport my computer wherever I went. But since then the netbook revolution has happened, and these days I carry an Eee PC around with me wherever I go, and the once-portable laptop has been chained to my desk for at least 2 years now. Add into the mix the fact that you tend to pay more for laptops with equivalent specs to a desktop PC, and there's one thing I definitely want to do this time around, and that is not spend a huge amount of money.

So, as far as I can see it, I have 3 options ahead of me:

  1. Buy a desktop PC and a new netbook, both running Windows 7, to cover me for power when at home, and portability when out and about.
  2. Buy a 17" desktop replacement laptop and a new netbook, both running Windows 7, to cover me for power when at home, and portability when out and about.
  3. Buy a 13" mini-laptop, and a big arsed monitor with keyboard / mouse, so that I can use the same machine for both home and travel duties - a half-way compromise

Now, as I see it I can basically rule out Option 2, since that will be the most expensive. 17" high-end laptops tend to cost somewhere close to $3k, so a $500 netbook on top of that is likely to break the bank. It also seems pointless to buy two laptops, one of which will never really be used for its real purpose in life. Option 1 is probably the best one for getting the rawest power out of the desktop machine, although the question has to be asked - if I am making the switch to an Xbox 360 for gaming, do I really need a high-end desktop machine?

Something that does appeal to me, however, is Option 3 - getting a mid-range 13" laptop, which I can use at home and when out and about, but with the added bonus of having a decent 24" monitor to plug it into when I am using it here. This would probably work out to be the cheapest option, and saves me having to buy yet another netbook. At this stage, I think I have enough of a glut of PCs in my house to avoid buying 2 of them right now.

Basically, my plan is to order the new machine next week sometime (probably through Dell, who seem to have the best prices right now - that, and I use Dells at work, and know how reliable they are), to ensure I have it in time for the election on August 21. I have a lot of thinking to do, but if you have any extra thoughts, please feel free to sound off in the Comments section!

PS: Before anyone suggests I get an Apple Macintosh computer, let me just say that I am a PC, and not a Mac... :)

Saturday
Jul312010

Why the DER & BER were good ideas

Source: ABC News

I've never made any secret of the fact that I am by and large a supporter of the ALP, and have been for several years now. This is particularly relevant given the ALP's focus on what has generally been sound education policy, especially in the area of schools funding. Even though I don't want to get bogged down in the specifics of the various funding arrangements that have been in place over the years, the simple fact remains that I prefer an ALP approach to school funding than I do the LNP. This is of particular importance right now, what with the 2010 Federal Election in full swing. One of the key differentiators between the two parties in this election is around this area of funding, in particular the various Education Revolution initiatives that have been implemented in the last 3 years by the Rudd Government.

Two of these larger initiatives, the Digital Education Revolution and Building the Education Revolution, are both planned to be scrapped by an Abbott Goverment, because they are using the cutting of these supposedly "wasteful spending" programs to cut costs across the Forward Estimates to pay for some of their more "interesting" policies. While I don't have a problem with Oppositions, or indeed sitting Governments, cutting spending in programs to save money, the fact is the LNP are making a big issue about wasted dollars when the reality could not be further from the truth. The sad part is, the media (in particular the Australian and our national broadcaster the ABC) are helping them to achieve their aims of twisting reality.

The BER, for example, recently went under the microscope in response to these claims of wasted money and a rushed program, with the Opposition trumpeting the release of the report as proof that the BER was a waste of time and money - this despite the fact that "the report found that the 254 complaints made out of 24,000 projects were valid and about half of those were related to value for money" (source: ABC News). That basically translates to about 1% of all the projects, which means that 99% of the projects were completed within the guidelines the Government set out. Another choice quote from the same ABC News article states that "the report also found those projects that had more consultation with the school community had better value for money and better infrastructure, and a lack of consultation at some schools was due to the tight timelines."

The simple fact is that this entire anti-BER story has always been a media beat-up, one that allowed News Ltd. to sell newspapers, and gave the Opposition a gleeful line of attack on the Government. Allow me to offer a personal perspective on why I feel the BER has been a massive success story.

I work at an independent school, one which benefited greatly from the BER program. We managed to secure funding for a new school library, a high-tech Language Lab, revamps to several existing facilities, and some extensive work done on the College grounds. All in all, we managed to nab about $5m of the BER money. While the timeline was tight, yes, that was because the BER was put in place in response to the GFC, and was designed to keep the building industry ticking over for 12-18 months. Which in our case it did very well - for well over 12 months not a day went by where we didn't have a few dozen builders and other associated people doing work at the College. We got what we wanted, and it has benefited the College community greatly since the facilities came on-line at the start of this year.

Where we were lucky was that we already had plans drawn up for most of what we applied for - so we got what we wanted, and got good value for money. For the minority of schools complaining that there was little consultation time, and short timelines etc, the simple fact is that at no stage was the Government forcing schools to apply for the BER money. If schools have gone into this whole process half-cocked, and then came out of it complaining that things didn't go how they wanted, that isn't the Government's fault.

Another complaint I've heard levelled at the BER was that the scale of what could be built was quite limited - schools complaning that they ended up with a new library or multi-purpose hall when they wanted money for new classrooms etc. Well, again, that wasn't what the BER was there for. It would be like going to a restaurant that isn't licensed, knowing that fact as you go in, then complaining to the management when they won't let you buy a glass of wine.

Here in QLD, the Block Grant Authority was still functioning, and has slightly wider parameters under which you can request funding - so presumably there was nothing stopping those schools who wanted some funding for, say, revamping GLAs (General Learning Areas) instead of building a hall or library.

Still, I guess you cannot stop people from whinging about stuff that they cannot have. Am just saddened that the media allow such an easy ride on these stupid lies.

On the flipside, the LNP have stated that they plan to cut the funding to the DER if they win Government, and this ties into my other pet peeve right now - people complaining that laptops / computers etc haven't been flooding into schools, as per what was promised in the 2007 Federal Election by Kevin Rudd. I frequently hear from people, people not connected to education mind you, witter on about how the Government haven't made good on their promise to fund a 1:1 ratio of computers in high schools.

The question I hear from people is quite simple: "Where's all the computers that Ruddy promised?"

Well, pardon me for not punching you in the face for not seeing the obvious, but the fact is that the DER is flooding schools right now with computers - it's just that different schools are taking different approaches to how they roll them out. Some are adding extra computer labs, some are rolling out personal laptops / netbooks to students. At the College I work at, our IT department has been rolling out individual laptops to our Senior students all year, with those in the Junior and Middle schools getting exclusive access to the existing computer labs in the College. All in all, we've probably now got well over an extra 200 computers floating around the College compared to 12 months ago.

Not bad for a program that, according to the Great Unwashed, isn't even working.

Anyway, this is becoming a bit of a soapbox speech, so I might stop it now. Hopefully this has provided some extra insight into why these two programs were great ideas, and deserve to be fully rolled out as per the original visions. This is just one of the reasons why I am fearful of waking up to an Abbott Government on August 22. The fact is, on education they had 12 years to demonstrate their ideology - and their record is simply not good enough to re-elect them so soon.

Please feel free to sound out in the comments if you wish to discuss this topic further - as you can probably tell, I really am quite passionate about it!

Wednesday
Jul282010

Advanced Screening 2010

Last Saturday I was lucky enough to see the final performance of Markwell Presents' latest theatrical production, Advanced Screening 2010. This was an updated version of a previous incarnation of the same story, with the new version streamlining the plot, adding a few new characters, as well as improving the original in a few areas. I had directed a production of the previous script in 2009, and am presently in the midst of directing a production of the new 2010 script. So it was nice to be able to see what the "official" production looked like, and I have to say that aside from a few minor problems, the production overall was a classy piece of work.

Advanced Screening deals with an average bunch of teenagers who are going through the throws of their final term of Year 12. As the play unfolds, we see relationships decay and end, new relationships emerge, as well as some nasty teenager-esque mindplay and manipulation occur. The central characters are William and Rosy, and their attempts to see if they can bring themselves to form a relationship before Year 12 ends. Each of them gets to witness, in an "advanced screening" form, various relationships through their friends - Brent and Amy, Kate and Jack, and Jamie and Trish. Each of the three couples in the storyline have their ups and downs, all contributing towards William and Rosy ultimately reaching a decision.

The script is a neat piece of work, and it is clearly written by people who have first-hand knowledge about how teenagers act and deal with situations. Brad Jennings and Steven Maxwell, the authors of the piece, are former high-school Drama teachers, and it is this first-hand knowledge that they bring to a script that feels really rather authentic in how it deals with teenagers, and gives them a unique voice. While at times it can be torture to watch a script about teenagers, but written by adults, completely mess up the realism of the scenario and the language, here Jennings and Maxwell get it right, and while there is the occasional bad line, 99% of what is there rings true, and explores in a mature way teenage romance.

What made this production particularly unique was the cinematic theatre nature of the production. Instead of utilising a complex set, Jennings and Maxwell elected to utilise projected cinematic sequences behind the actors, to assist in not only setting up each location, but also to offer us transitions between each scene. This kept the flow of the piece going, and never once did it feel awkward between scene changes, with no blackouts and quiet shuffling of furniture to destroy the audience's attention. Honeydew Studios deserve particular praise for their simply breathtaking CGI schoolyard environment, which gave the show a lot of flexibility. This was amazing work, and I hope to see more cinematic theatre productions to come.

All of this would have been for nothing, however, had the casting been off. After an extensive audition process, a group of 10 teenagers were selected to bring the various characters to life, and for the most part each of them did an exceptional job. While at times some of them did betray their lack of experience in the profession with some wonky delivery of lines, or a slightly off understanding of the respective character's motivation, the fact remains that this group of 10 teenagers put in an exceptional amount of work to realise these well-defined characters. Each of them certainly have a definite career ahead of them in the industry, and Advanced Screening was a definite step in the right direction for them.

Overall, Advanced Screening is a triumph for the Brisbane indy theatre scene, Markwell Presents as a company, and indeed everyone involved should feel extremely proud of their efforts in bringing this show to fruition. The Powerhouse's Visy Theatre was the perfect small-scale intimate venue to bring this show to life, and I really do hope that next year we see another production from Markwell Presents, furthering their mission to bring the excitement that is Cinematic Theatre into the mainstream. They certainly have an impressive example of how the style can work in this show, and I can definitely see big things on the horizon for these two talented ex-Drama teachers.

For more information about the show, visit the official web site.

Sunday
Jul252010

The Great Debate 2010

Source: Yahoo!

Which wasn't so great, as it all turned out. :)

Each time there is a Federal Election those of us who are political tragics look to events such as the Leaders Debate as something to sink our teeth into. Normally these are a chance to see the leader and possible leader test their mettle when under the fire of not only their opponent, but also the cream of the journalistic crop. It is a chance for the average Australian out there to cut through all of the usual media spin, to hear direct from the leaders what their thoughts are on the burning questions of the campaign.

Which is why it is such a shame that tonight's debate was a complete waste of time, whether you are a political tragic such as myself, or just Joe Blogs out there, for whom politics is a "once every 3 year annoyance" which forces you to remember to do something on a Saturday morning in your local school hall or church.

The reason this year's debate was such a waste of time was simply because it reflects what is fast becoming apparent in this year's Federal Election - everything is just so scripted. Both Gillard and Abbott barely wavered from their usual set of talking points, and only one real moment of direct exchange occurring between the leaders (excluding the customary end-of-debate handshake) throughout the entire evening.

Clearly, gone are the days of the John Hewson / Paul Keating debate of 1993, where the leaders actually were able to get stuck into each other and really provide some definite interest.

The Worm made its return this year, and even it was quite predictable - despite the new feature of offering male and female worms. The little girl went up when Julia spoke (and down when Abbott spoke), while the little guy seemed to go up whenever Abbott spoke. So no real news there, or excitement generated.

About the only interesting element were some of the questions being asked by the very select panel of journos present, with the ABC's Chris Uhlmann offering what were some of the best questions on the night. Sadly, neither leader seemed prepared to deviate from their broad campaign talking points and themes. The end result was answers that either avoided the question entirely, or twisted the question in such a way that allowed the leader to return to their heavily scripted responses from basically any presser they've given thus far.

In short, I am kind of glad there will only be the one debate this year, because if the campaign thus far is any indication, the 2010 Federal Election is turning out to be quite the fizzer. Although I do have to ask a simple question - where was Bob Brown tonight? If the British General Election can feature a debate between the top three leaders, why can't we manage it here? At least if Bob Brown from the Greens had been involved, things might have been a little bit more interesting, to say the least.

You know you're in trouble when the most interesting person out there at present is the leader of the third biggest political party, and one that is pretty far left-of-centre...

Let's hope the campaign improves from this point onwards, otherwise most of Australia will be sleep-walking their way towards August 21. Unless that is what the major political parties want, I guess...

Thursday
Jul222010

Windows Live Essentials 2011

Source: Microsoft

Earlier this month Microsoft released in Beta form the new version of Windows Live Essentials, their suite of consumer-focussed multimedia and Internet applications designed to complement Windows 7. Most of the apps contained in the bundle were previously found in Windows XP and Vista, but these days Microsoft seems content to offer them as free standalone downloads, which makes sense I guess. The logic is that it means they can update them more frequently than the main OS, even if by "frequent" they really mean "every 18 months". Gotta love the Redmondian way of thinking sometimes!

The most interesting app update for me is the new version of Windows Live Messenger, which now links heavily into your Windows Live profile on the Web. The biggest new feature of Windows Live is the ability to link your profile to the various social networks people now belong to, such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr etc. This means that as soon as you log into Windows Live on the Web, or Messenger on the PC, your window fills up with all the content from these services that your Friends post. Which makes for a unique experience, and something that has long been missing on the PC. The ability to centralise all of this social information into one place is quite awesome, and from what Paul Thurrot has said over at the Supersite for Windows, this would appear to be very similar to how this kind of content will be handled on the forthcoming Windows Phone 7, which just sounds plain freakin' awesome.

Windows Live Mail has also received a nice update, bringing it just another step closer to looking and feeling like the younger brother to Outlook, the Titan of the corporate e-mail world. The use of the Ribbon interface in Live Mail, and indeed now all of the Windows Live Essentials apps, brings a nice uniformity to the suite, and certainly helps to make the entire set of applications feel more featured and robust, something you never quite seemed to feel with the 2009 version.

A lot of people compare Windows Live Essentials to Apple's iLife suite, which is a fair comparison to make I guess, with some similar apps found in both packages. But the key difference here is in price - WLE is free, while iLife isn't. And so while WLE is not as fully-featured as iLife (a common point of attack the iCabal make), of course one would expect iLife to be more endowed with features - given Apple expect you to pay for it!

Source: Microsoft

But while we're talking about comparable apps, Windows Live Photo Gallery and Windows Live Movie Maker both get big updates in this new package, with the former adding some very cool geotagging and face recognition features, and WLMM getting more effects and output modes. Sure, neither are going to give Photoshop or Premiere a run for their money, but if all you want to do is muck around with the photos and clips you took on your recent holiday, then these applications are more than capable of handling whatever requirements you have.

Another interesting element of WLE which makes it a boon for Windows Vista users is the Windows Live Sync tool, formally the Live Mesh application that Microsoft made available. This is some truly remarkable programming, whereby you can specify which folders on your computers to sync between the other computers you own. I find this incredibly useful, as it allows me to sync all my documents / music / pictures / videos between my main computer, and my travel netbook Eee PC. The end result of this is I always have access to my documents and files wherever I go, and I can edit and update them on either machine without needing to copy them back across. The syncing feature alone is worth its weight in gold, as well as the side effect that it allows you to decentralise your data onto multiple machines, meaning less chance of data loss should a single hard drive or computer ever go down. It is a shame the cloud-based storage for Live Sync is only 2gb, down from Live Meshs' 5gb. That was handy having on-line off-site backup, so hopefully this figure goes back up somewhat soon.

It's not all roses, however. This is definitely Beta software right now, so not really ideal for mainstream people. I have noticed some major memory leak issues on the Messenger and Mail applications, for example, and the programs do crash occasionally. So if you value 100% stability, stick with the 2009 releases for now. But if you want a sneak peak at where Windows 8 might be going in 2012, check out the new Windows Live Essentials 2011 Beta. There's certainly enough in there to keep most people interested.