Monday, August 25, 2014

Computer woes

My home computer has been giving me problems for several months. These started before we went on holiday and were mainly fixed by replacing the power supply (and its fan). But in the past few weeks, it has been acting strangely: freezing, spontaneously rebooting and displaying the blue screen of death after an unpredictable amount of time. There have been days when I have managed to work without interruption (for example, last Friday) and there have been days (like yesterday) when the computer boots and progresses to the stage when I can download my email then ... pfff! No computer.

I have to replace this computer. I am somewhat wary of progressing to Windows 7 as I have a suspicion that some of the music software which I use won't work. I analysed my computing needs as follows:
  1. General computing - internet, email, word processing, etc. There shouldn't be a problem here although I hope that I won't lose any of the most recent emails (I have backups but not daily). All my doctoral work - papers which I have downloaded and material which I have written - is constantly backed up to Dropbox, so presuming that I can remember the password to Dropbox (probably stored in an email...), all this material will be accessible at home.
  2. Programming: all my source code is backed up on Dropbox. The only thing which worries me here is third party code; most of this is not essential, but the Indy 10 communications library is very important.
  3. Music: the majority of my files - either source MIDI files or final WAV files - are all backed up on external media. If my hard disk goes, then I lose the instrumental piece on which I have been working for the past week (in between reboots). This is based on a file which was made seventeen years ago, so I could reconstruct it if necessary. What really bothers me here is the software - I can reinstall the various programs, but it's the third party code (mainly vst effects) which will be problematic.
My computer technician called just as I was about to start writing this blog. It seems that he has transferred my hard disks to a new motherboard, so whilst he has to work ensuring that everything works on the system level (new drivers, etc), all the installed software and files will be intact and should work as before. Presumably the computer will have a new MAC address (network interface) which will be slightly problematic but easily overcome.

In case anyone is wondering how I can write this blog entry with no home computer, I am using one of my other two computers (one at work and one mobile). All three are connected to my Dropbox and I even copied a recent backup of my emails (a pst file) to the work file server, so I can even access those emails from work should I need to. How do I post blog entries when I'm on holiday? Obviously not from my home computer.

[MPP: 504;0,1,6]

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Abattoir blues

August means that there is a new Inspector Banks novel from Peter Robinson. I downloaded this book from Amazon to my Kindle about two weeks ago and I've read it twice. It's a very solid and engrossing book but I do have some comments about it.

First of all, it seems that about 75% of the book is exposition, waiting for something to happen. Whilst it's intriguing to read what the police team is doing, they don't seem to be progressing very much. When they do progress, though, they progress extremely fast, so much so that the ending seems very rushed.

As I have noted with several other of the Inspector Banks novels, it often seems that the team don't detect very much. Most of the important facts (or pieces of evidence) are brought to their attention: a tractor is stolen, some blood is found in a disused hangar. Following on from the tractor, they discover that the son of the person who was looking after the farm from which the tractor was stolen is missing. The common-law wife of this missing person is threatened by someone stupid enough to leave his fingerprints behind. The caravan belonging to a mate of the missing person is torched.

The detective team talk to people and theorise but don't really get anywhere. They have (at first) daily meetings which help them but also help the reader in making sense of what is happening. The only real insight which is made by the detective team is when Winsome realises that an hour of a driver's schedule is missing and makes an educated guess as to where he spent that hour.

The characterisation of Winsome is much better than it has been in previous books; she has moved more into the centre of the story, whilst DCI Banks and DI Cabbot relinquish some of their 'screen time'. Not only do we see Winsome the detective in action, we also see some of Winsome the person; she comes over as more sympathetic than she has been in previous books. On the other hand, DCI Banks receives much less 'personal time', there are fewer pieces of music referenced and his love life seems to be on hold. The hints which were made about retirement in the previous installment get referenced once - by Annie Cabbot. In other words, neither the police institution nor Banks himself refer to it, which means that it's a kind of red herring.

Coincidence - or the requirements of book writing - ensure that two characters from previous books make appearances, both with exactly the right information which Banks and his team need. In other words, I think that real life is more confusing and jumbled, but this wouldn't make for good reading.

There are some nice touches, almost jokes, in the book but only one sticks in my mind. There is a DC (he first appeared about three books ago) who apparently looks like Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter. People rib him about this, including his colleagues. At one stage, a local tearaway suddenly doubles up in page whilst this DC walks past with an angelic expression on his face. The implication, of course, is that he dealt a blow to the tearaway in response to being ridiculed.

There is one incident which I have yet to understand. The person 'stupid enough to leave his fingerprints behind' (as I noted above) is traced and interviewed. After the interview finishes (he didn't reveal much and his expensive lawyer would have liked him to reveal even less), he wishes the woman (that he threatened) and her son well. The lawyer whisks him away before he can say any more and the DC accompanying Banks in the interview says "Is that what I thought it was?" I thought that the implication was that the thug could only know that the woman had a small son by having been in their flat, but this existence of the son is revealed at the beginning of the interview. Maybe the fact that the son was young was not mentioned, but I think that this is a mistake in the book. Certainly, this 'revelation' is never discussed again, so maybe this was something that should have been edited out.

There's another technique which I noticed being used a few times: someone (normally Banks) would voice an idea which wouldn't have much basis in fact (according to what the characters knew at the time) and one of the other characters (normally Annie) would criticise that idea, exactly in the same way that I would do, causing the first character to justify himself. It's as if author Robinson was aware that the statement would cause the reader to object, so he inserted the explanation into the text.

Here's part of an interesting article about reading books on the Kindle: A new study which found that readers using a Kindle were "significantly" worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occurred in a mystery story is part of major new Europe-wide research looking at the impact of digitisation on the reading experience.

The study, presented in Italy at a conference last month and set to be published as a paper, gave 50 readers the same short story by Elizabeth George to read. Half read the 28-page story on a Kindle, and half in a paperback, with readers then tested on aspects of the story including objects, characters and settings.

Anne Mangen of Norway's Stavanger University, a lead researcher on the study, thought academics might "find differences in the immersion facilitated by the device, in emotional responses" to the story. Her predictions were based on an earlier study comparing reading an upsetting short story on paper and on iPad. "In this study, we found that paper readers did report higher on measures having to do with empathy and transportation and immersion, and narrative coherence, than iPad readers," said Mangen.

But instead, the performance was largely similar, except when it came to the timing of events in the story. "The Kindle readers performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure, ie, when they were asked to place 14 events in the correct order."