Tuesday, 26 April 2016

New laptop bought

Well, it's done. I got home from North Devon late afternoon yesterday, and by mid-evening I had the old Dell PC fired up and was looking critically at those laptop reviews that seemed the least gung-ho, and the most knowledgable on real-life usability. I watched hours of hands-on, in-depth video examinations and comparisons. I gleaned a lot of information on what each of the three machines still shortlisted would be like in my hands, doing what I personally would want to do with them.

I actually got to bed around 2.00am. By then I'd pretty well made up my mind, but still wanted to sleep on it. And just now - before breakfast! - the deed was done: I actually ordered the laptop that I judged, on all the evidence seen, to be best for me.

The three still shortlisted were, in ascending order of cost at the online Microsoft Store:

Dell XPS 13 at £1149
Microsoft Surface Book at £1599
Dell XPS 15 at £1649 (the Signature Edition at the MS Store)

All three were very good laptops, indeed flagship models in their particular 13-inch or 15-inch classes. Of course all were expensive, even the little XPS 13, but then these were high-grade devices, a world away from all the sub-£500 laptops around. All were robust and likely to wear well. All had the latest Intel Skylake processors. All had high-resolution screens to give a very crisp and very colourful rendition. I had myself (at various shops, while on holiday) handled and photographed the Dell XPS 13 and MS Surface Book. So I knew what these models felt like, as well as what they looked like. But the videos added much to my shop experiences. I played some of those videos twice over, to make sure I'd got the full impression to sleep on.

One of my friends had given me some great advice by text while I was away, and I kept it much in mind. The thrust of it was to go for the most powerful machine, with the largest RAM memory, that I could afford. As technology advanced over the coming years, an extraordinarily well-specified machine would stay cutting-edge for a long time. In processor terms, this suggested going for the top-rated of the three Intel Core processors: the 'slow' i3, the 'half-fast' i5, and the 'super-fast' i7. Two of the laptops on my list would have an i7 processor, one having an i5, and all would be helped out by some kind of separate graphics card to cope with demanding visual requirements, such as working with photos en masse, or gaming.

But of course there were many other design features to consider, not just the processing power. For instance:

The screen
Close-up on my lap, or on a table in my study or in the caravan, a 13-inch screen was not too small at all. My elderly Asus laptop had a 14-inch screen and that was fine for everything when just an arm's-length away. A 15-incher might in fact be overwhelming at arm's length, especially if it was blazing light at my tired eyes in semi-darkness. All three machines had gorgeous colour, but the two Dells were stuck with screens that had 'hot whites', that tended to give the screen a bluish tinge that was a characteristic of the screen and could not be completely eliminated with calibration software (even if you tinkered with the greyscale). The XPS 15 was particularly bad for this. I liked nice, bright photos; but with the white tones in my photos already over-accentuated - this is a very usual problem with compact cameras - then I most certainly did not want the whiteness turned up even more on the laptop screen. It would blow all white detail. The Surface Book had a different make of screen, and no such 'hot whites' issue.

What about the shape of the screen? The XPS 13's was 16:9, TV-shaped, and while this suited many activities, it was rather long and narrow for documents and web pages. Ditto the XPS 15, although the larger screen was distinctly helpful. The Surface Book's 3:2 screen had the height of the XPS 15's screen, but was more A4-shaped, as if a 16:9 screen had had its sides trimmed. I liked the 3:2 shape, preferring height over width. I often took photos in 'portrait' orientation rather then 'landscape', and had long thought that the 16:9 screen shape made it harder to work on a 'portrait' picture.

The touchpad
The Surface Book came with a pen, and I realised that when photo-processing much if not everything could be done with this pen alone, and precisely. And when dealing with text and spreadsheets, making selections and so on with this pen might well be easier and faster than using the on-screen pointer controlled from the touchpad. Nevertheless, for many things a smooth and very accurate touchpad was essential. Nowadays indeed, in Windows 10, there were two and three-finger strokes and taps one could make with a touchpad optimised for them. All three machines had good smooth touchpads, but the very best was on the Surface Book.

The keyboard
I'd confirmed in-shop that the XPS 13 keyboard was nice to use, if just a little on the small side. The XPS 15, though a larger device, surprisingly used the very same keyboard. Dell hadn't spaced it out more, although there was ample room. This keyboard had keys that had only a shallow travel. They were firm and positive, but short key travel might mean battered finger-tips after a very long hard typing session. And not only did I do a lot of typing for the blog, and my various kinds of daily note-making, I still had my best-selling novel to write! The key travel on the Surface Book's significantly more spacious keyboard was greater, promising an easier time for my fingers and probably more fluid typing.

Heat issues
The vents on both the Dells were so placed that my knees would get very cosy. I didn't do any gaming, so they would never actually be cooked. But the venting on the Surface Book, most of it around the circumference of the screen, was going to radiate the warmth generated out into the air, and not onto my limbs. It wasn't going to treat my body as a heat sink.

Webcam position
I don't currently do Skype nor any form of video conferencing, but who knows, one day I might have to. Supposing I sell licenses for a whole batch of photos, but while the deal is being done, or before it is clinched, the client wants to speak with me as if face-to-face? Hah! In my dreams! But what if, as I get older, I get less inclined to make personal visits on long-range caravan trips? A video chat might be some kind of poor substitute.

Both Dells have an oddly-positioned webcam, low down to one side, because there is no room for a camera at the top of the screen. The image produced is up-your-nose, and exaggerates the size of your chin. The Surface Book has its camera where it should be, so that the video experience will be normal and flattering.

There is also a useful bonus connected with the webcam position. Although all these machines run Windows 10, only the Surface Book can offer the Hello method of logging on. This is where the camera - if it can get a proper look at who is in front of the screen, and if it has been set up to recognise that face as an Authorised User of the laptop - will log the person on forthwith, no password being necessary. It just looks at you as you open up the laptop, and if satisfied it's really you, launches forthwith. How slick is that? Better than fingerprints! What a boon.

Battery life
This is not really a deal-breaker. The venerable Asus laptops's battery pack died years ago, and for years I've been accustomed to plugging the thing into the mains. That's always possible at home. And nearly always in the caravan - it's so unlikely that I'd stay on a site that didn't have an electric hookup. I'd want electricity for heating, for instance, and for easy charging up all kinds of device, mobile phone and Ladyshave razor included. Still, I might occasionally have to do without. I mean, you can't plug in when parked at a motorway service area. And I remember how it was when, on a damp and chilly night in the Lake District - far from my Sussex home - I blew a switch on my caravan consumer unit, and was deprived of mains electricity for the rest of my trip. Stone-age stuff. (Grunts and lumbers around Neanderthally)

So a laptop that can do hours of work for me, or entertain me, or inform me, on its own batteries when I'm out and around (perhaps in a library or a lunchtime pub) and sitting too far from a socket, is a laptop worth having. The big-screened, i7-booted XPS 15 apparently drinks power like a gas-guzzling Yank Tank of old. The smaller-screened XPS 13, also i7 in its topmost configuration, is somewhat more parsimonious. But the Surface Book (i5) beats both by some margin. Most of the time, with my sort of modest low-intensity use, I'd expect to get ten hours out of the Surface Book's batteries. I'd be lucky to get half of that from the XPS 15, even if I resisted the temptation to put it through its paces.

And even at home, I'd rather avoid a trailing power cable.

I'm not forgetting that mobile phones can do an awful lot to help out a laptop. Much ordinary web-surfing can be done very nicely with a phone. I'd always prefer to use my phone as an organiser and note-taker, rather than fire up the laptop all the time for that kind of thing. And unless Wi-Fi is available, the phone will be the device that accesses Dropbox and make changes to documents and spreadsheets. So a good smartphone can take a lot of pressure off a laptop, and help eke out the laptop's batteries. This would be vital in the case of the XPS 15. Less so with the XPS 13. Almost unnecessary with the Surface Book.

So what did I buy?

The MS Surface Book.

You can view all four of the Surface Book configurations here: http://www.microsoftstore.com/store/msuk/en_GB/pdp/productID.332604800?icid=en_GB_Homepage_Hero_Surface_Book_15042016.

I've plumped for the Intel Skylake Core i5 version, with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage. It also has a separate Nvidia graphics card, quite good enough for all my photo work and documents and spreadsheets, though not really for gaming (but then, as I've said, I don't game).

The cost? £1,599, plus £10 for express delivery. And I didn't gulp at all when I confirmed the purchase. I felt I'd done my research, weighed my options, and this was the right thing to do.

It's Tuesday morning. I'm hoping that I'll have my new laptop sometime on Thursday.

Tonight I was mentioning my purchase to a Brighton friend, Kim, and she looked up what Which? had to say about it - she was a subscriber. Well, Which? reckoned the Surface Book was an easy 'Best Buy'! Isn't that nice to know? (Smirks horribly)

Sunday, 24 April 2016

No point in being afraid

My brother Wayne, who died twenty-one years ago in a road accident, would have been sixty today. There would have been some kind of family gathering in celebration of 'the senior man of the family' reaching this milestone age. I dare say he and I would find a long quiet moment together, to reflect on what had happened during those six decades, where both of us were now, and whither we were bound. A Janus moment. A moment to look back, and look forward, to take stock, and possibly make important decisions.

I can imagine sitting together and pondering past hopes, what had actually been achieved, which illusions had been lost, which dreams remained. Wayne was always much more of an idealist and visionary than I was; I would expect him to have had greater expectations, and to have suffered correspondingly greater disappointments. Would he have lost the faith he once had, in the light of experience? Would he have surprised me, declaring that he had abandoned all spiritual belief and now wanted to live (as I did) on the basis that his days of consciousness and self-awareness were strictly limited to the span of his lifetime? And that consequently all opportunities to live well should be seized and not squandered - 'well' including not just reasonable self-indulgence, but being a steadfast and caring person whose actions and example might inspire, or at least make a difference.

What I can't so easily imagine is what Wayne would look like, and how his voice might sound. Twenty-one years would have brought about many changes. But then, if he were still alive, he would see changes in me too. Not many people resemble how they were twenty-one years ago.

Wayne was younger than me by almost four years. I had no other brother, and no sisters. So for a long time past I have been in an only-child's position. Once Wayne was killed, he was gone forever: I never felt him as an ongoing unseen presence, watching over me, hopefully as an ally in all I attempted. I do however cherish the notion that if he were still alive we would be close, seeing each other often, cooperating, sharing a good joke together, each there for the other if need be. I would love him to be still in this world, hopefully as the grand person he might have been; but even if he had become an embittered cynic. Anything is better than no brother at all.

The reality - life with only me in it, and no celebration today, no quiet moment of profound reflection between younger brother and older sister - has to be faced, and with cheerfulness and a stout heart. Wayne was, but is not now. He fell by the wayside, and can't complete the journey. I may sigh, but the only thing to do is to walk on and get there by myself.

And where is 'there'? What lies ahead? Whatever it is, there is no point in being afraid.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Distracted from my holiday

This has not been a great holiday for blogging!

It's the usual trouble...whether I make it a morning or evening activity, putting a decent post together has to take second place to photo-editing, and indeed just enjoying my holiday. There is also the issue of illustration, by which I mean that the various important events of the holiday most certainly need to be related with accompanying photos, and publishing blog posts with pictures added to them is not practical when sitting inside a metal box (my caravan) in a farmer's field with a weak and variable mobile internet connection. Actually, here in North Devon it's a weak 4G connection, and it's surprisingly good for straightforward ordinary purposes such as phoning, and texting, and sending emails, and internet banking. But not for submitting a photo-laden post to Blogger.

So I must leave all that until I get home, and concentrate instead on topics that may not seem very holidaylike. If, that is, I can get round to writing anything at all. For the 'usual trouble' has been compounded by having the purchase of a new laptop on my mind. It's such a major purchase for me. It will reduce my savings by half. I can't afford to make a mistake. I have got myself clued up as regards specifications, so I do understand what various features will do for me, and whether I really need them. I have been reading online reviews galore, and watching video reviews on YouTube. That's all been done on my phone - what a star that phone has been! - but I've just realised that I've used up 60% of my monthly mobile data allowance, so that kind of thing has now got to be abandoned until I get home and can use my PC instead. Hmph. That's four days away.

And did reading all that opinion assist? Yes and no. I found myself being swayed one way and another, like a weathercock. Tech journalists rarely seem to have the same take on a product. They all offer you an opinion based on their own subjective reaction, often striving to say something different or unexpected about the device in question - occasionally resorting to hyperbole and overblown language, as if they are attempting to outdo each other. (In truth they probably are) Male reviewers seem most prone to tut-tut, sneer and cavil, and damn a product for falling fatally short in some way. Female reviewers are fewer, but their words ring truer to me, and their opinion seems more balanced. Both however go on and on about points that in real life may not matter much. At least not to me - such as how a particular laptop copes with some high-demand computer game. They all seem obsessed with gaming. My photo work certainly requires processing power, but most reviewers say little about the practical business of actually getting pictures processed on a laptop, certainly not about whether this or that machine will be especially suitable for a time-starved shooter with 200 shots to edit, caption, backup, share, publish and file away all in one evening.

It leaves me, the potential purchaser, still undecided, even if all aspects of the product have been exhaustively explained. Which is not good, because once home I must make up my mind and order a laptop without delay, confident that I will be happy with my new kit when it arrives on my doorstep.

I can of course physically examine the likely contenders (or the nearest model in the range) in the very few shops where laptops can nowadays be found. In Devon, that means John Lewis in Exeter, or the few branches of PC World. I have used up holiday time doing this. Touching and playing with the merchandise has certainly helped. It has however brought to my attention some other laptops that I hadn't thought worth serious consideration. This is presently my shortlist:

Microsoft Surface Book (a luxury, stylish, indeed futuristic, laptop with a detachable screen that can be used as a tablet)
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (a high-grade tablet with a detachable keyboard that turns it into a laptop)
Dell XPS 13 (a high-grade laptop)

The above three all have medium-sized 12 or 13 inch screens. If I want a 15 inch screen, there is:

Dell XPS 15 (a larger high-grade laptop)

So now I am torn four ways! All the models with a specification I like are within the £1,200 to £1,650 price range at the online Microsoft Store. All run Windows 10. All have touch-enabled screens that look fantastic. I've personally examined all of them closely except the Dell XPS 15, which is however just a bigger, more capable, XPS 13 and presumably has much the same feel.

Marginally the most expensive is the Dell XPS 15, but that's the largest and most powerful machine. The cheapest option is the MS Surface Pro 4.

The best-looking (by some margin) is the MS Surface Book. Next best-looking is the Dell XPS 13.

Both the MS machines are 'different' from normal laptops, and more versatile.

The MS Surface Book and the Dell XPS 13 have potentially the best battery life, in my hands anyway.

As for durability, the two Dells seem most likely to last for years unscathed.

At this point, I'm attracted to the MS Surface Book and the Dell XPS 13 equally. Both are easy to transport, sturdy and sophisticated, and will do their job well. Both are probably no-regret buys. But the Dell XPS 13 is £450 cheaper. Does that make the Dell the obvious choice?

Friday, 15 April 2016

Smiling Sidmouth

I spent nearly three hours in Sidmouth yesterday, most of it in sunshine. It struck me yet again that this is a place with great appeal, combining Regency buildings, mostly whimsical but some of them very fine, with a serene pebble-and-sand seafront, high red cliffs, good shopping, and a mild microclimate. I can't think of anything I dislike about the place. It even has a Waitrose!

Of course, Sidmouth does have ordinary houses and bungalows, and the odd bit of tattiness here and there, but the overall impression is of a decidedly special and upmarket seaside town. It's not London-on-Sea, which is Brighton's other name. It's more like a seaside version of Cheltenham, but in miniature, and with a suggestion of the Brighton Lanes at its heart. I said as much to the young lady who served me in Seasalt, Ania, who had herself lived in Brighton, and moved to Sidmouth two years ago. She looked and sounded terribly English. She was surely still in her late twenties, and slim and elegant, able to wear anything, and I felt frumpy in comparison. I wondered that she was here at all - surely her interests and tastes weren't catered for? Wasn't Sidmouth really too much geared to the needs and preferences of the well-heeled retired? - but she said she absolutely loved living and working in the town.

Well, that's exactly what other people said. And I'd met and spoken with quite a few of them since my solo visits to Sidmouth began in 2009. People met in shops. People met in coffee shops. People met on sunny promenade seats. I'd yet to meet anybody bad-tempered or fed up with life in any way. It was clearly a place that was good for one's sense of well-being. It certainly had that effect on me.

And also on a couple I met in the Connaught Gardens, at the west end of the seafront. I was of course snapping away with my camera, and had nearly stepped backwards into a passing woman. Apologising, I saw that a happy-looking older couple had watched the near-collision. We started talking. They were Pat and John from Bristol. They had been married over seventy years, which must place them in their eighties, although neither looked so old. They came to Sidmouth twice a year. The only other holiday they did now was a week in Sorrento. We chatted very amiably for nearly half an hour. We agreed on many things. We shared the same positive outlook. Pat was keenly interested in my rag rug efforts. I showed her my pictures of it. John was keenly interested in my photography. It was yet another of those cheerful casual encounters you depart from with reluctance.

And yet the congenial encounters kept coming. Next, a retired man with his dog, like Ania a recent incomer, but ardent for life in Sidmouth, and speaking of it as the very Garden of Eden. Immediately afterwards, another gentleman, who was passing as I took a photo of the name plate for an apartment building: Sandition. I remarked to him that this was surely the title Jane Austen gave to her last, unfinished book, which was set in a Regency seaside town exactly like Sidmouth, even to the location. It was a tale of intrigues and peccadilloes and local politics and social pretentions. Personally, I wouldn't have thought any real town would really want to be identified with the fictional Sandition, but perhaps the desirable Jane Austen connection was paramount, and not many people would ever have read the story.

My route back to where Fiona was parked took me near the building that housed an arts centre at the front end, and several very posh apartments at the rear. This was where another Fiona, a lady I'd met when visiting Sidmouth last September, lived. I think I described how that encounter went in a post in early October 2015. I wondered whether she was at home. Yes, she probably was: her balcony door was ajar. Briefly, I had been sitting in the sun outside Sidmouth Museum, where it was sheltered from the keen autumn breeze, and she joined me. After chatting away for a while, she invited me to her flat for coffee and more chat. Orkney-born, she was polite and interesting, and I accepted. But the coffee didn't materialise, and the conversation turned into an interrogation. She was very curious to know all about my life and my family. It was too intrusive. I contrived a graceful departure, but although I'd given her almost two hours of my day, it clearly hadn't satisfied her. I sensed she was very lonely. But all those questions were a bit too much. A friend told me later that Orkney people were prone to being inquisitive about their friends and neighbours, and clearly this included casual strangers too. I didn't meet her again this time. I'm not sure how we would have handled coming face-to-face.

Where next? I'd had Bicton Gardens in mind, but it was starting to cloud over. I drove instead to a retail park on the edge of Exeter, to have a look at the selection of laptops in Currys/PC World. I fancied this was a larger shop than the one back at Hove. It was. But they still had nothing in the price range I was currently considering, not even among the Apple stuff. So I have yet to see a laptop with a 4K screen. I had a good look at the 4K televisions, though, and was once again blown away. My goodness, how prices had fallen over the last two years! 4K TVs had been touching £3,000 not so long ago. Now even an eye-popping big-screen UHD Samsung TV could be mine for £1,300 or so. In fact for £300 less than the laptop that was top of my list. (But I would get far more use from a laptop)

Amazingly, although I had a jolly good look at all kinds of gear, I was not approached by a salesman at any point. I marvelled at this, but wasn't sorry, as I intensely dislike being the target for 'assistance' when I'm merely looking. At the Hove shop, you have to keep moving. It's fatal to linger over anything. In fact before I enter the store I always have some credible 'reasons' worked out as to why I won't be buying, so that if targeted I can slide away. Pushy salespeople are the bane of modern life.

It's turned misty and rainy. A day for mooching around the shops and museums. I may go as far as Dorchester - although Taunton is the same distance - and then hope to catch the sunset this evening. (Sunshine is forecast to return in late afternoon)

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Buying online from the Microsoft Store

It's amazing how you can suddenly discover something new and useful, that you've never looked into before.

I was reading yet another Dell XPS 15 laptop review, and happened to look at the comments section that followed it. Now I've long been accustomed to take comments sections (and forums) with a big pinch of salt, whether it's to do with computing, photography, cars or even the sort of thing you'll find on Mumsnet. Worthwhile advice and wisdom, the kind that you might actually consider following, is usually in limited supply. Fortunately it's usually possible to discern which contributors are sane and sensible and know what they're talking about, and which have personality problems or are trolls pure and simple.

Anyway, one sane contributor (in response to a claim that all Dell products were junk, and full of problems) made a suggestion that made me sit up. He recommended buying the Dell XPS 15 not direct from Dell, but from the Microsoft Store. He added that you'd get it quicker too, because it doesn't have to be shipped so far.

Apparently Microsoft do not just sell their own Surface-branded goods in this Store of theirs. They offer a selected range of laptops from other manufacturers - HP, Acer, Lenovo, and Dell. These are marketed as their own Signature Edition. That means they are unpacked, checked and tested, stripped of bloatware and trialware, and then repacked for sale. They do this so that the buyer gets a machine that will run faster and provide the best possible Windows 10 experience, uncompromised by the manufacturer's own useless extras.

Thus an XPS 15 Signature Edition from the Microsoft Store would present me with Windows 10 as Microsoft want me to enjoy it. In this way they can showcase a 'pure' version of Windows 10 in all its glory.

Of course buying direct from Dell would be cheaper. The machine I have been thinking of - if bought direct from Dell - would presently cost me £1,599.00. The MS store will charge me £1,649.99. That's £50 more. Well, for that extra cash I apparently get an assurance that my new pride and joy will work faultlessly out of the box - it has to, so that Microsoft can do their stuff with it - and that all inessential (and irritating) third-party software will be fully (and safely) expunged.

A tested and well-sorted machine is naturally a very attractive proposition. Yes, I could spend time doing all that they do myself. Assuming the new toy comes with all correct bits and pieces - such as a mains cable - and starts up without issues, and keeps going, then in theory it's simple to uninstall anything one doesn't want. But in practice some of this unwanted stuff is tenacious, clinging on at a deep level. Or one hesitates, unsure whether it's completely safe to get rid of it. I'd rather leave a complete cull to experts.

Should I be cynical and suspect that the notion of a 'Signature Edition' is just a device to divert gullible customers to the MS Store and squeeze an extra £50 out of them?

Well, Windows 10 is still new enough to need promotion. It would make commercial sense for Microsoft to genuinely quality-check the goods sold, so that the hardware will unfailingly fire up and display their OS without glitches. And then purge the software, so that the customer gets a cracking Windows 10 experience. And becomes a thoroughly happy bunny willing to recommend the OS, and indeed the MS Store. So with this rationale in mind, I think I'll buy from the MS Store, and not Dell itself.

But another £50...oh well. I did say this is an eight-year investment. So, if the cost is spread forwards, it now becomes £206 per annum rather than £200.

The laptops offered by the MS Store can all be seen here: http://www.microsoftstore.com/store/msuk/en_GB/list/categoryID.69958800?icid=PC_Category_ModG_Laptops_10122015#

And the link to the Dell XPS 15 in particular is here: http://www.microsoftstore.com/store/msuk/en_GB/pdp/Dell-XPS-15-9550-8090-Core-i7-512GB-Laptop/productID.333798800

I'm also going to look carefully at the other Signature Edition laptops, just in case I've overlooked an equally-capable rival. Or one that has lesser power but would do. Microsoft's own Surface Book might deserve a second look too. I can do this in odd moments while on holiday, perhaps when having afternoon tea and cake somewhere.


I should think David Cameron, our Prime Minister, must be pulling a rueful face just now and wishing that he'd ignored the advice he was given, or his own personal impulse, to apply the following maxims, which might otherwise seem quite reasonable:

# Say as little as possible.
# Hold fast to the principle that a purely private matter is nobody else's business.
# Stoutly assert that no law has been broken, nothing wrong has been done, and all taxes payable have been declared and duly paid.

For these maxims have proved ineffective. Politicians in important positions are not allowed to stonewall. He's had to cough up the details bit by bit, and it doesn't look good, having 'the truth' dragged out of him like this. Rightly or wrongly, he has lost some personal credibility.

Most people don't like being kept in the dark on something they feel they should have been told. This is David Cameron's present problem. He is an important man. A high standard of personal frankness is appropriate. But he is now blemished because he wasn't at first as frank as he should have been. People do expect a well-remunerated person to pop spare cash in various places. Nothing wrong with that. But those investments mustn't have a bad whiff about them. Nor be hidden behind a smokescreen. People want their national leaders to show exemplary transparency, and not attempt to hide the facts. Concealment raises eyebrows, provokes questions, and earns disapproval.

The disclosures so far suggest that everything was done before he became Prime Minister, and that the 'offensive' offshore investments used an unremarkable financial vehicle well-known to the tax authorities, and tolerated at the time. But Mr Cameron should have known that being parsimonious with disclosure is fatal. His judgement was at fault. Even if you are entitled by law to be sparing with the particulars, any form of concealment is damaging. It always leads to embarrassment and a lessening of personal authority. People don't feel they can accept anything you say at face value any more. Respect seeps away. Enemies exult, and make political capital - although that is also a dangerous game, if they have dabbled too. For they might easily be found out. Total secrecy can't be absolutely guaranteed any more. Large-scale, unexpected, unforeseeable leaks of damning documents and communications can occur at any moment. There will always be investigators willing to risk everything to unearth the truth, and moles inside the organisation who will blow the whistle.

I dare say that tax authorities everywhere will now be under intense pressure to curb these abuses forthwith. If not from governments, then from outraged citizen groups. The game has been spoiled. Whoever is behind this massive Panamanian leak, they must have high hopes that unethical financial behaviour in high places will now be exposed in every country that matters. They must hope that heads will roll, not just those of the usual suspects, but those belonging to hitherto faceless manipulators and criminals that nobody has ever heard of. And that ultimately a bit more openness and honesty will be the norm.

I do wish them success. But I doubt whether this or any other mass embarrassment will really transform human nature. We all learn early in life that being completely open places ammunition in the hands of ill-intentioned people, and grief will result. We learn to be guarded. It's a pity that it's like this. But wisdom lies in assessing the situation, and if you judge that the other person can't be trusted with anything you tell them, then you will keep quiet.

This applies to personal information of any kind, not just financial information. And there is always a two-way imperative. On one hand, it may be sensible to keep quiet. On the other, it may be unethical to keep quiet, if the matter in question is important. And there's the thing. Which facts are essential, and should always be made clear? And always offered up front?

What about a past criminal record? It does reflect on the character of the person concerned, whether the conviction was for theft, fraud, manslaughter or dangerous driving. Should it be disclosed?

What about past relationships? Should an embarrassingly long list of failed relationships be swept under the carpet and never mentioned?

If I were diabetic or epileptic, or my sight was badly impaired, I would never keep it a secret. I'd want other people to be watching out for any signs of imminent difficulty, and be ready to assist me. So I'd pre-warn them. And infection, or suspected infection, with a contagious disease is something else that can't be concealed. But what about slight deafness? Or a minor deformity? Or a spell in rehab? Are they important enough to disclose?

What about past obesity? Who really needs to know, if the underlying problem is under control through diet or surgery?

Indeed, let's focus on surgery. I've recently heard about two persons who had remedial surgery for a hare lip and cleft palate, and you'd never guess now. Yet is it perfectly ethical to say nothing about disfigurements put right, if that's what the person concerned wants? Should one keep quiet about the nose job done ten years ago? Or about the 'resculpturing' of any part of the body, to make it look nicer, or at least closer to some ideal or norm?

I can see why principled people might insist that there is always a general onus to confess to every kind of medical intervention. They'll say anything done to the body's integrity, certainly anything radical, must be important and therefore a thing to be mentioned. Yet if the scars are now undetectable, and the surgery has produced the hoped-for beneficial effect, and the present-day world sees a healthy, active and happy person, then why bring it up? What rule says one has to?

And if there are tell-tale scars? My own position here is that if those scars will be revealed by bedroom intimacy, then I want to talk and explain. If there is never going to be any such intimacy, then no practical purpose is served by drawing attention to what the surgeon did. So I won't be discussing my stay in hospital some years ago.

It's old news anyway, it doesn't affect the here and now, and it's quite possibly in the realm of 'too much information'. And what kind of morbid-minded ghoul would really want to know all the gory details? I'm not going to pander to mere curiosity.

Nevertheless, the 'transparency principle' is still there, urging full disclosure, and I run the risk of being held dishonest if I don't reveal all. Well so be it. I choose to live dangerously!

But I don't suppose Mr Cameron (and the many other users of offshore investment vehicles at his shoulder) ever thought he was 'living dangerously' by not volunteering a full disclosure of his family wealth.

Supposing he had - suddenly - done so, without any prompting whatever. I wonder whether it would have been greeted with approval or cynicism? Would people have suspected a devious secret agenda? In other words, would being open without pressure being brought to bear actually have invited all kinds of speculation, the disclosure being taken as the opening gambit in a calculated and 'managed' series of confessions?

It's hard to see how a person in his position can ever do the right thing - or anything - without it seeming questionable, given the general lack of faith in politicians. In which case, public figures (including celebrities and powerful sports officials) might well assert that ordinary standards do not apply to them - but in a bad way.

If, that is, they are found out. Thank goodness for the ferreting that goes on by investigative journalists and others to expose dodgy dealings and money movements. If the so-called 'Panamanian Papers' had never come to light, would Mr Cameron (and the rest) have ever come clean?

Ah, who knows.

Friday, 8 April 2016

A good home at last for a posh watch

Back in January 2009 I bought a TAG Heuer watch for myself, spending an outrageous £950. But at the time I genuinely wanted a good watch, I certainly had the money, and I urgently needed to boost my personal self-image after several very difficult months. It was intended to be a psychological pick-me-up - as much so as the Prada handbag purchased soon afterwards (which cost much the same). Here is the watch on my wrist in February 2009:

Gosh, I was so slim then! Not the fatty I am now. Here's another picture of the watch, taken in July 2009:

It was a stainless-steel watch, but it went very well with my silver jewellery.

These hyper-expensive indulgences - the watch and the handbag - worked brilliantly. My sense of self-worth recovered, and never faltered thereafter. And for a while both articles functioned as eye-catching fashion wearables that I wore as much as possible, and enjoyed doing so. It wasn't long, of course, before the Prada handbag had to be set aside and reserved for special occasions only, and a more practical Radley bag substituted for all the punishing everyday use bags get. But I kept the TAG Heuer watch on my wrist, because it looked so good. And after all, it was useful - it did tell me the time!

But when the battery eventually died, I was reluctant to pay £70-odd to get a new battery fitted. It was so much because the shop I bought it from (in the Brighton Lanes) insisted that it be sent away to Switzerland or Germany, so that having taken the back off the the thing, and inserted a new battery, it could then be factory-resealed to resist submersion in the sea down to 30 metres! I considered this to be an utter waste of time. I wasn't even going to wear it in the bath or shower. They could whistle for that £70. I refused to play that game. I donned a cheap but nevertheless good-looking Timex watch I'd bought from Argos for £11, and put the TAG Heuer away. Permanently.

Years passed. I was conscious that I had wasted good money on this watch, if I wasn't going to wear it. In 2015 I looked into the possibility of selling it on eBay. But the purchase documentation was flawed. It did not substantiate that I myself had bought it, and was the proper owner. In other words, I couldn't prove that I wasn't selling a stolen watch. A serious bidder might well require that proof.

And I knew full well that if I tried - as an alternative - to sell a watch like this for cash to the kind of jeweller who would ask no questions, I would get very little. Indeed, I'd be very fortunate to get as much as £50. This meant taking a £900 loss. It was an insult to the watch.

That still left gifting it away to a female friend, preferably someone close to me. I wondered whether Emma, who was at one time my step-daughter's school friend, would like it. We no longer of course had a parent-child relationship. She was a long-married woman with grown-up kids. We now met up several times a year as two adults, for a nice grown-up day out. A forty-something lady and a sixty-something lady, with eighteen years in between; but for all that possessing a shared outlook, and shared memories going back to 1984 or so. So when we met up just before last Christmas, I sounded her out. She said yes. And so I duly gave her the watch (together with its elaborate packaging and flawed purchase documentation) when we met up the other day.

She was delighted with it. And it did look good in her hands.

She put it on. It fitted her wrist perfectly. That clinched it. I said I was so pleased it could be worn at once without any modification to the bracelet. I cautioned her against getting a new battery from a posh jeweller - they would only follow the official routine of sending it away, at vast expense to her. She should go to some ordinary shop - a branch of Timpson's perhaps - and get the new battery fitted without worrying about that daft waterproof seal.

So there it is. One watch gets a new home. I hope it and its new owner will be very happy with each other!

Now it's a new laptop!

It might have seemed as if I was getting very obsessed with my next mobile phone! But there was in fact a more pressing matter to address: upgrading my home computing equipment. This was something I was going to give 'deep thought to' and get on with 'during 2016' (see my post Google Chrome withdraws support for Windows Vista, 30th January 2016) but the urgency was in fact acute. I just wasn't facing up to it.

So it's 'time up' for my ten-year-old laptop (still running Windows XP, and used solely for my photo-processing) and my nine-year-old desktop PC (still running Windows Vista, and my main device for using the Internet, and for bulk photo storage).

For the last week neither XP nor Vista have been supported by Google's Chrome browser - a serious matter, rendering Chrome (my favourite browser) liable henceforth to performance glitches or worse. And presumably this lack of support extends (if not now, then soon) to other Google products that I use a great deal, such as Gmail and Blogger. I certainly can't be without them!

And of course, in less than a year ahead Microsoft will be withdrawing their own support for Vista, with some serious security and app-compatibility problems likely to arise straight away (if my experience of the 2014 Windows XP abandonment is anything to go by).

So, the moment has come to buy a 2016-model Windows 10 laptop. I have been studying the many reviews of likely laptops on the Internet. As always when contemplating a purchase like this, you need to think realistically about what you want from the new beast. My requirements will differ from most other people's.

# Whatever I buy, it must last a minimum of eight years. Looking ahead, I can't afford to replace my laptops oftener. There are too many competing demands on my strictly limited pension income. So the new laptop must be strong, well-built, and likely to last. Cheap, underpowered, tacky machines will be no good at all. Although constrained to what I can afford, I'm buying for the future and making a long-term investment. I am not going to settle for a short-term bargain that will soon be outmoded or simply fall apart. It's worth stretching the budget to get something that will do the job very well eight years from now.

# I'm not looking at Apple. Apple stuff is beautifully designed, and clearly works very well, but joining Planet Apple would require a change of culture and an acceptance of different norms. And once in, there seems to be no escape! Despite Microsoft being a lumbering one-eyed giant, I'm used to Windows, and its ways good and bad, and want to stay with what I know.

# I haven't been impressed by the 'tablet experience', and so buying a laptop with a detachable keyboard, so that the screen can be used as a 'handy' tablet, has no appeal. I want a proper laptop, with a stout fixed hinge.

# I've considered what I will mainly use the new laptop for:
- Writing documents (including blog posts) and working on spreadsheets. I do this daily, relentlessly.
- Editing freshly-taken photos, backing them up, publishing some of them, sharing some of them, and then storing them for easy retrieval. I probably devote more screen time to photo work than watching ordinary TV. It's not a mere hobby, it's integral to my lifestyle.
- Looking at the Internet. It's my window on what's happening in the world, and my source for information on all kinds of things. And I am very curious. I love to know.
- Watching catch-up TV on the BBC iPlayer. More and more, I watch TV at my convenience and not when it's scheduled.

All these uses suggest that a laptop with a larger high-resolution screen, and a decent keyboard and touchpad, will be the most suitable. Let's say a 15-inch screen. That's large enough to make working on documents, spreadsheets and photos - and reading web pages - pleasant and easy. And such a screen at arm's length will seem as big as the one on my TV across the lounge. Nor will a 15-inch laptop be too large and heavy, although I don't need ultra-portability. I only need to carry the thing around the house, between lounge and study, and now and then out to the car or caravan.

# I don't do any gaming. But I have similar graphics requirements, as I need to process a large number of photographs as rapidly as possible. In recent years, since 2009 anyway, I've been taking at least 10,000 shots every year. But since buying the Panasonic LX100 last August the yearly average has increased to 16,000. And these recent photos all have somewhat larger file sizes than before. I can justify a fast and powerful machine.

A study of what's available has quickly narrowed my choice down to Dell's XPS 15. But the configuration that will give me the best combination of features will unfortunately cost £1,599. Ouch! And yet it's not out of reach - it will just blow a very big hole in my savings. It can be properly regarded as an eight-year investment, and looked at in that way, the cost works out at a more reasonable £200 for each year. But £1,599 is still a high enough price to make anybody hesitate! Mind you, the gods that assist wavering purchasers are intervening. Booking Fiona in for her annual service and MOT this morning, I discovered to my joy that this year's service will be significantly cheaper this year than I had thought. That certainly helps. Something saved on one thing can be spent instead on another!

That £1,599 will buy me a glossy '4K' screen. I do know what 4K means for TVs; and wandering around Currys at midday (not a place I'd ever buy from, but you do at least see an awful lot of well set-up TVs on display) I was reminded yet again how stunning a 4K picture is - so detailed, so colourful. Definitely gorgeous, and a feature to lust after! It would be great on a laptop too - so far as pictures are concerned. There's a potential snag with text and icons - all those extra screen pixels make them look tiny! Still, there are workarounds. I may end up rescaling all the time, depending on the activity - that is, switching between screen magnifications to select the most appropriate one.

With 4K comes touch. A 4K laptop screen can be touched like a phone screen can. Gestures can be used to do things. Perhaps this is unlikely to be especially useful on a laptop but, who knows, the ability to do something by quickly touching or swiping the screen might have unexpected advantages. A one-prod method of getting up the rescaling menu, for instance?

I could save myself £300 by having a non-touch, matte screen with 'mere' full-HD resolution. That's a screen filled with only a quarter of the pixels you get with 4K. It's still sharp! And being matte instead of glossy means that screen reflections are less of a problem. But a laptop screen can always be angled to eliminate reflections, and in any case I don't do any photo work in broad daylight, nor with bright house lights shining onto the screen. For me, screen reflections are entirely avoidable, and not an issue. So it comes down to whether saving £300 is worth the trade-off of not having 4K resolution. That's saving £37.50 for each of those next eight years: is it enough to care about? 4K is definitely the thing of the future, destined to be a key part of the 'laptop experience' in years to come. 4K would keep my new laptop 'contemporary'. Hmm. I do think I might kick myself if I settled for an adequate, but lesser, screen.

4K combined with great processing power means that battery life won't be impressive. This hardly matters. Whether at home, or in the caravan, I always plug in to the mains, and that won't change. I do not envisage a lengthy holiday in parts where electricity is not on tap!

I don't have to make a final decision today. There's no point. I'm less than a week away from my next caravan holiday, and there's going to be a lot of preparation needed for that in the next few days. Even if Dell could despatch and deliver a new laptop to me before I go, I'd have no time to do more than unpack it. I know from past experience that it can take days to set a new computer up. There are always frustrations. Just getting used to the look of Windows 10, and how to do basic things, will take a while. I really wouldn't be able to throw enough time at it. And I couldn't get Wi-Fi on the farms I'll be staying at, so the vital Internet would be out of reach unless I used my phone as a 4G hot-spot and tethered the laptop to it.

No, I'll wait till I get home. I want to get out and around, and enjoy my holiday, not skulk in the caravan trying to make a new toy work. And if it's rainy and cold, I'd rather get out needles and wool, and start practising my knitting!

Besides, despite all this careful consideration, it's sensible to take a break from the whole thing, stand back, and give myself time to cool off and rethink. Over the next couple of weeks a different laptop solution may come to my attention.

The new laptop, once bought, will enable the honourable retirement of the trusty old one, and the dishonourable dismissal of my crumbling unloved last-legs tablet. I'll be keeping the desktop PC though. It has 190GB of storage space left, and the big monitor is still very good. It will become a big powered hard drive, the physical repository for my entire digital photo collection - backed-up periodically of course to other hard drives. In that way it will remain useful for years ahead. But disconnected from the Internet - and therefore inaccessible to destructive viruses and malware.

As regards the notion of a new phone in 2016, that's now an impossibility. The cash won't be there. It'll have been spent on the laptop. But do you know, I don't mind carrying on with the phone I have. It's excellent. And, if I manage its remaining memory carefully, I'm sure it will last well into 2017. Why should I play the two-year replacement game, anyway?

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Brexit: bleak thinking

For goodness sake, the EU referendum and the question of whether Britain should stay in or exit, is only seven weeks away. Where is the serious campaigning? Why is no reliable and unbiased printed information on this terribly important matter coming through my front door and thudding onto the mat inside, for me to study and discuss? Why are there only 'warnings' from various parties with vested interests, whose partisan position can hardly be taken at face value? Why is so much being heard from the Money Men, and so little from other people - some of them surely experts - who could speak up on all the other effects an exit might bring about?

Economics is only part of it. What about the British Way Of Life in general? How might day-to-day living for ordinary people change if we baled out and went our own way? What would happen to our culture, our freedoms, our scenery? Would we still have friendship and respect from other countries? Would they admire us or sneer? Where could we all go on holiday?

The point is made again and again on the radio (I don't waste money on tub-thumping newspapers, and confrontational TV debates turn me off) that while the broad picture is clear if we stay in, it's all very uncertain if we go. And that's the trouble: lack of hard information. If the consequences of leaving could be explained in fair detail, then it would be possible to form a rational opinion based on facts. Perhaps there really are no worthwhile facts to get hold of. One will have to rely instead on faith and hope, and the famed British ability to muddle through.

Of course it's appealing to think that, freed from Europe, we can go it alone in some blind heroic endeavour. But we won't be sailing majestically away and ruling the waves. We will have to become Fortress Britannia, that defensive island off the Northwest coast of Europe. And Europe will still be where it is, on our doorstep.

I'm now beginning to edge towards a personal default position where (for want of any credible information and guidance from somebody in a position to give it) I will vote for staying in. It seems best to recognise obvious geographical facts and political realities. We are a second-tier power - important, yes, in various ways, but not the most important or influential. The ability to set things in motion slipped from our hands a long time ago. Nowadays we do not create events - we react to them. We have to watch our step with China, with America, with Russia, and a host of lesser nations that perhaps underestimate us, but will cause difficulties if they sense any vulnerability. To some extent, as matters presently stand, an attack on Britain (verbal or otherwise) is also an attack on Europe. EU membership may irk True British Instincts but it is useful where the world stage is concerned. We all stand strong together, and look after our own. Well, that's the theory.

And what about the overwhelming global challenges slowly emerging - climate changes, energy shortages, food shortages, water shortages, mass-migration, enhanced longevity? It seems best to face them as part of a larger alliance. I dare say this risks getting drawn into a United States of Europe at some point. But might that be better than the risk of becoming (in effect) a colony of the good old USA? Because if Europe is rejected, the only other obvious ally to attach ourselves to is America. Europe lets us be independent of America and the other superpowers. America is of course friendly, but it's still a big devouring animal that likes to take you over. If we abandoned Europe, we might end up having to do and say exactly what America wants us to. That's the price of security.

Another thought. I have a strong suspicion that most of our self-seeking, wobbly politicians tremble at the prospect of having to run an 'independent' Britain. They fear the challenge. They know they might prove incompetent. They know that the light harness of Europe provides a ready-made excuse for not delivering on difficult plans. For procrastination on many issues. For, indeed, maladministration, inefficiency, stick-in-the-mudness and waste. If we were really detached from Europe, and fending on our own, then the quality of leadership and the quality of decisions taken would have to be much, much higher. I don't see anyone in the present government (or the opposition) of sufficiently star quality. Even if the careerists concerned would like the chance to 'have a go', to make their mark on history, could they really be trusted? I think I'd rather have the 'bloated' European executive and legislature on hand to prod our bickering ministers (governing or shadow) into doing something sensible, with less of the 'me, me, me' attitude so many display.

There is another, bleaker vision to contend with. The one where Brexit fails, and it all turns vicious. Never mind the politicians. Are the ordinary people of the UK are of sufficiently star quality to embrace the consequences, whatever they may be, with cheerfulness and enterprise? What if there are lots of losers? Will society implode, become selfish and miserly, and generally deteriorate in disastrous ways? Brexit could lead to a renewal of national self-respect, and a true pulling-together; but it could also lead to rampant nationalism and ugly scenes of discrimination. I don't want to see that.

Friday, 1 April 2016

New phone decisions!

It's that time again, when the upgrade date is approaching and one had better work out the best options.

I'm with Vodafone, and I have a white Samsung Galaxy S5 purchased on a monthly contract with them almost exactly two years ago. I was able to get the S5 on the very day it was first released - they merely added four months to the contract, making it 28 months instead of 24 months. It will end on 8 August 2016. The upgrade date is 26 May 2016. I am looking at the pros and cons of upgrading to the just-released Samsung Galaxy S7 in late May or (more likely, bearing in mind holiday dates and delivery times) late June.

I am in fact very happy with my S5, except for one thing: its internal memory (nominally 16GB) is rapidly dwindling. It's all that Ordnance Survey 1;25,000 Explorer mapping I've been installing! It will go only into the internal memory, and can't go onto the inserted 64GB memory card. I use this kind of mapping all the time, and will only want to install more and more of it. The S7 would give me an extra 16GB of internal memory, and solve this increasingly pressing issue.

There are other reasons for buying an S7 of course. It's a nicer design. The electronics are better. And its starting firmware will be the very latest. It will look (and operate) as a top-flight phone for a long time ahead. I can expect superior capability and performance during that time. I am a 'power user', and do far, far more with my phone than just make calls and send texts. Really, it's not a telephone: it's a small mobile PC.

It's only two years old, but my S5 is now getting its last firmware update, and after that it will rapidly become old hat. That's the pity about modern mobile phones. Even if they really suit you, and you love them, and look after them, they gradually become useless because usually they get only two firmware updates. In time the latest apps won't work on them. They slide relentlessly into obsolescence. And to cap it all, the battery will show signs of failure before the thing is three years old. Sigh.

Two years ago, when upgrading from the S2 to the S4 or (as it turned out) the S5, I wanted to buy the new phone outright and use it with a low-cost SIM card. But I couldn't find the many hundreds of pounds needed, and had to go the monthly contract route. This time I have a bit more money, and an outright purchase is a viable option. These are the advantages that matter to me:

# I can buy the new phone from any online retailer I like.
# I can get one in exactly the colour I want, with (if there is any choice) the precise specification I want.
# I am not tied to a monthly contract.
# Indeed I am not tied to a two-year replacement regime. Three years seems to squeeze the most from a phone.
# I can stay with Vodafone, and keep my phone number, but pay much less per month with a SIM-only deal. 'Much less' would be something like a £20 to £25 difference, compared to the monthly contract charge.

There are some possible disadvantages:

# I must come up with the purchase money every three years. (But times have changed, and I can nowadays put the money together for a planned purchase like this)
# If it's defective, there will be no hardware support or replacement, except whatever the retailer might agree to. (But if I buy from a firm like Expansys or Clove - or even Samsung itself - I ought to feel reasonably confident about not getting a duff phone)
# As a SIM-only customer, I might be less valuable to Vodafone and get less service. (Not that I have ever called on them for much!)

If I bought outright, I would first have to wait for the current contract to end in August. However, the price of a new S7 should have come down a bit by then. Its about £570 just now. I would hope to find one for £500.

Of course, if the deal is right, I can always buy on contract again from Vodafone, and do it sooner. Taken over a 24 month span, the overall outlay is similar to an outright purchase. Vodafone's contract would work out slightly more expensive, but really there's not a lot in it. I would however have to commit to a long contract - and with it, less flexibility about how I spend my cash month by month.

So there's a clear timetable here. At the end of May or June I shall look at what kind of deal Vodafone can do for me, and take it if it's too good to resist. If I'm not tempted, then I'll review the situation again in August, and probably buy a new S7 outright from somewhere. I will simultaneously switch to SIM-only, and then dispose of my S5 to the kind of online company that will buy it from me, and sell on the valuable parts in an ecologically-good way.

And why the S7, rather than the larger and supposedly more desirable S7 Edge? On a brief handling, I've found the Edge cuts into my palm and won't be nice to hold for very long. That's the simple reason.

Well, that's going into the whole matter in an awful lot of detail! But then perhaps all this may be useful to someone in a parallel situation!