Surface Pro First Impressions

Got my 128 GB Surface Pro today, and after almost 3 years of using iPads, I can say that there is not a fair comparison to be made between these two tablets. One is a fully-functioning computer in a tablet form factor, the other is a very large iPod Touch. A more fair comparison to an Apple product would be to the MacBook Air 11″ 128 GB that retails for just $50 less than the 128 GB Pro with Type cover. The specs are nearly identical, but with the Pro, you get the digitizer pen and a touch interface completely absent from the Air.

Windows 8 was *made* for this device, it runs ridiculously smoothly, even better than the desk/laptop experience because of the touch interface and digitizer pen. For those of you who weren’t crazy about the latest version of Windows, this thing will clear up the confusion you may have about what they were thinking when they released it. The one complaint I have about the pen (the utterly amazing pen, wow) isn’t so much about the pen itself as much as the way they decided to magnetically mount it on the power input, rather than following Lenovo and Samsung’s lead and making an internal holster for the thing. It feels like the pen is almost certainly going to get lost somewhere in my house or car because of this, and it’s just annoying that I have to take it off whenever I want to charge my tablet.

Which brings us to battery life. Not a surprise at all, battery life is not a strong point on the Pro’s side. Tough to hand down too strong an opinion one way or another on this, given that I’ve only had it since about 2 this afternoon, and the UPS guy left it between the inside and outside doors of my house’s furnace room for several hours, but getting my programs and apps loaded and installed burned through most of my battery in about 4 hours with 2 left on the meter. If 6 hours is even a rough estimate at the battery life under real-life conditions, that’s way short of the 9-10 hours I routinely get out of my iPad 2 and 3. Thing is, this is the price you pay for having an Intel 3rd gen i5 processor instead of the mobile chips running my iPads, so it’s a trade-off I made with my eyes open.

One thing that really does stand out on the Surface compared to the laptop experience is how well IE10 works. On my laptop (a 3-year-old HP running W8 Pro), I still use Chrome for most things, nearly everything I do online in fact. On the Surface though, IE10 is incredibly smooth, while Chrome is a little clunky in a side by side comparison. It could be that Google hasn’t worked out all the kinks of porting their browser to the W8Pro touch environment, but pinch zooming, text selection, everything just runs so much smoother in IE that it’s going to be a while before I fire up Chrome on my tablet again, even though it is my hands down browser of choice on my iPads, laptop and work desktop.

The other app that really blew me away was OneNote, especially the way it works with the pen. I haven’t taken enough time to really give this a proper review, but first impressions have been outstanding. The handwriting recognition is nearly flawless, especially given my astonishingly bad handwriting; while playing around, I turned the pen around to see what happened, and literally laughed out loud when I saw that I’d stumbled on the eraser function just by monkeying around (manuals are for suckers, right?). This app is going to get a lot of use from me, especially since it integrates with my phone (WP7 HTC Radar), so whenever I write myself a note on my tablet, it automatically synchs up with the app on my phone, greatly reducing the chances that the grocery list my wife sent me to the store with will be forgotten. On first impressions, this combination of pen and OneNote should be to the Surface what Halo was to the Xbox, the killer app that sold more units than any other feature on the thing.

In recent reviews, much has been made of the fact that while the Surface specs say that they offer 64 or 128GB of storage, the real amount of storage available for user files is significantly less (around 90GB on my 128GB unit), it strikes me that these reviewers have picked a very odd nit to pick. Have none of these reviewers ever used a computer or tablet without an operating system and its related files? Oh, and if you’re having storage issues? Yeah, the Surface has both a microSD slot and a full sized USB 3.0 port you can plug an unlimited amount of storage into, unlike my iPads, which I can’t plug into anything.

Speaking of plugging things into things, I was also able to wirelessly plug into the network printers in my classroom just the way I would on my desktop, and any other peripheral with a USB plug can do the same. This thing is everything that the iPad was supposed to be, but without having ever to download and install iTunes. It is the grown-up, productive machine that does everything your laptop does, rather than a purely consumption-geared device best suited for marathon rounds of Angry Birds and my 3-year-old’s alphabet games.

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Our Bright Dark Age

The thought occurred to me that if I had been born at nearly any other time in history, odds are I would have died by now. For the vast majority of humanity, average life spans didn’t get much over 30 years until very recently in anthropological terms. Sure, there were pockets of longevity in there, and if you made it out of your teens you would likely make it to your 50’s or 60’s, but for the most part war, famine or disease would get you before you got through your 20’s. The notion that anyone would be having just their first child when they were well into their 30’s would have been unimaginable for most of our ancestors, and yet it’s becoming the norm among my peers. The way we live is such a total aberration, such a shift away from the historical norm, I can’t help but wonder when the bubble is going to burst.

Looking back over the ages, it seems that every time some civilization or other gets a serious power base going, revolutionizes their sphere of control and takes a leap forward, history has a way of clawing back most if not all of that forward movement. The Romans spread their culture over most of the Western world for hundreds of years, and then the Dark Ages came along and all but erased them under a wave of Huns, Goths, Visigoths and Vandals. But for a few remnants and pockets of memory in the form of libraries, most of us never would have heard of Julius Caesar or Mark Antony, and even Christianity’s survival would have been touch and go without the work of a few monks out on the fringes keeping their libraries tended. The Romans were a high water mark in many ways, their myriad faults notwithstanding, and it was by and large a bad thing for most people when its legacy was almost erased by barbarians.

Thing is, it seems like every historical high water mark has ebbed to the point of some new low, and usually at the hands of those we consider barbarians today. It seems obvious that these people were savages with no appreciation of what they were tearing down, but can it really be as simple as that? Did the Gauls sack Rome simply because they were crazed savages, or perhaps did they have a deeper motivation, maybe something rooted in Rome’s treatment of their tribes in what is now France and Germany? If a foreign army marched into your town, burned everything to the ground, killed anyone who resisted and then sold nearly everyone you know into slavery, what would be your general opinion of that army and its home country? Rome didn’t build her empire on fair dealing and respectful negotiations with the people they conquered, they conquered them. It was a brutal process that involved centuries of war and oppression, humiliation and retribution. While it could be argued that Rome wasn’t as cruel as some powers of its time, it’s hard to picture too many things more cruel than nailing your defeated opponent’s soldiers to crosses and lining them up along the road home, just as a display of power.

Now, if Rome’s high water mark was built on mass killing and slavery, and it looks very much like every single nation to make it to the top of the heap has taken a similar approach to achieving greatness, does it make sense to think that we’ve gotten to our own high water mark in some other way? Or perhaps should we wonder about what’s underpinning our own modern empire, and maybe consider the possibility that it could have something to do with a potential wave of “barbarians” or “savages” who are currently being crushed down and oppressed in our name?

Be honest with yourself for a moment and just think rationally about the situation we’re all in. Does it really make sense to say that there are just evil people out there who hate us because we’re free, or should we be looking for a better explanation for the massive piles of hatred people all over the world have for the West? In human terms, is my 70 year life expectancy coming at the expense of someone else’s life or happiness? Take a moment and think about it, and if you come out of that time thinking your oppression footprint is zero, you need to go take another moment until things get a little clearer for you. Every extra year you live on this planet, and every miracle gadget improving your quality of life is quite likely offset by someone else having their time on Earth cut short or degraded, either in a war for control of the mining rights to a mineral necessary for your latest MRI or X-ray, or through Victorian work standards in a sweat shop making those little plastic miracles in your pockets and living room.

While reading a recent blog about our society heading towards a new Dark Age, it struck me that the writer was taking a very narrow view of history, which is very common among Western writers. What he missed was that the Dark Ages weren’t dark for everyone; they were just dark for Europeans. The Arabian Peninsula and North Africa were going through something of a Renaissance during that time, and Asia was hitting a similar high water mark as the Mongolian Empire solidified power and evolved into the Golden Horde. If the West in general and America in particular really does slide into a new Dark Age, it is very likely that we are going to see those powers rising up to fill the power vacuum portrayed as savages, as barbarians and outlaws; in fact, we are already seeing that in the vilification of Muslims and China. Muslims are dangerous radicals bent on destruction, China is a tyrannical monolithic power out to take over our stuff and rule us through economic leverage; this is the narrative our popular culture is feeding us on a constant basis. This is also the narrative Roman culture fed its citizens about the Huns who came and crushed the Western Empire, and it is the narrative the Eastern Empire followed when talking about an Arab culture that produced the works of Avicenna and Averroes.

All this talk of barbarians at the gate, of foreign powers looking to take over the world, it’s all just history repeating itself for the nth time, and we need to see it for what it is. The way to avoid a new Dark Age isn’t throwing blood and treasure at things until we’ve beaten the world into submission, it is to open our eyes to the way the world really is and stop talking about other cultures like they’re dangerous aliens. Muslims don’t really want to kill you and your children because Mohammed told them to, they just want to live in peace and raise their families, same as you do. The Chinese don’t really want to crush the world under the boot of global domination, they just want a standard of living we’ve been rubbing in their faces for centuries. They are all just people, same as you and me, and for the vast majority all they want is to have a little security and comfort in their lives, nothing much more. It’s only the power-hungry few who drum up fear and anger among their people, who portray our global neighbours as our enemies, and get obscenely rich in the process. We need to stop handing over control of everything to these madmen and see them for what they really are, hoarders on a planetary scale. Until their monomania for power and wealth is brought under control, none of us will be able to live in peace and justice with our neighbours, so we need to start calling them out for what they are, stage an intervention and get us all the help we need.

The Electronic Collective Unconscious

You don’t happen to know the average May rainfall for Seattle off the top of your head, do you? If you had to do a search to find out, don’t feel bad, I did too (2.16″, if you couldn’t be bothered). Now, do you happen to remember the name of your second grade teacher? Don’t feel bad if you can’t remember, but I think it would be a fair bet that you were able to pull up your teacher’s name, even though you haven’t used that information in an active way for several years. Now, take a second and think about the two bits of mental gymnastics you just performed. In the case of Seattle rainfall, unless you’re some sort of savant who happens to store up meteorological data from the Pacific Northwest, you relied upon a physically external source for the information, likely by typing “Seattle May rainfall” into the search bar on your browser. In the case of your teacher’s name, you probably used an internal source to get the answer. Other than the source, was there a significant difference as far as your mind was concerned? Was one type of knowledge different from the other in an appreciable way?

For many of us, the internet has become something of a brain extender, the place we keep all the trivia and statistics we don’t want to waste skull space for. I don’t remember phone numbers, my smartphone does it for me; I don’t know birthdays, facebook keeps track of them for me. I might be alone in this, but I have a hunch that I’m not; I have a hunch that if you’re reading an obscure blog you saw linked somewhere with a weird title about “The Electronic Collective Unconscious”, you’re one of the growing number of digital natives wandering around, trying to figure out how to make your phone run your TV and wishing it had an app to help you run even more aspects of your life. More and more of us are looking for more and more ways to integrate the internet and various devices into our daily lives in order to do more, see more, maybe even be more.

The question I’m preoccupied with right now is where the line is between mind and environment, just how much of our mental processes occur entirely within our heads, and how much of it takes place somewhere out there, wherever that may be. This is not something new in human evolutionary terms; the first person to use her fingers to count took her mental processes and used something outside her head to augment it, we’re just doing the same thing in a much more complicated and larger way. Books, pictures, movies, sound recordings, there is an endless list of things human beings have used to extend our minds; twenty years ago, if you wanted to know something, you went to a book and found the information, you asked someone if they knew the answer, or you used some other avenue to take that information out of the external world and into your own grey matter. Now, the process is much faster and more convenient, but there isn’t a difference in the nature of the act of data retrieval from our outer world to our inner one.

Well, that might not necessarily be true; maybe there is something that differentiates our mind’s new tool from its old ones: the fact that it looks very much like a mind itself. Where a book is a physical object, you actually have to walk over to the shelf, open it, and locate the desired information somewhere in space before taking it in, but in the case of the internet, it is drawing closer and closer to being physically co-located with us, through one device or another, and science fiction is rapidly becoming everyday reality. People are looking for ways to have the internet floating in front of us, displayed on our glasses as we walk around, and the question becomes at what point do we stop asking about sentient machines and realize that in fact we are those machines, or at least the ghosts in them. It is not an unimaginable future where we find ourselves living our lives through the filter of the ‘net via implanted devices that become as natural to us as our hands; it’s a near-reality that’s getting closer by the day.

One thing we really need to consider in all of this is once we’re all living online 24/7, where is all the information we’re drawing on coming from? Right now, if you enter “Chinese restaurant” into your search bar, you’re going to get localized results that filter for restaurants in your area based on your IP address. Now, who is doing that filtering? Chances are, you’re a google user, so you know that it’s google doing the filtering of your search results, tailoring them to be the most useful for you, right? Well, yes and no. Certainly, there is a great deal of utility for users in this, you don’t need to scroll down through every Chinese restaurant on the entire web until you find one in your town, it’s right there at the top of the page, probably even with a map giving you directions to each, that much is obvious. However, there is also the question of which restaurants may or may not have purchased advertising from google, which could potentially be affecting the order your search results appear on the page. Say Mao’s Manchurian has paid a little extra to have their restaurant appear at the top of your area’s searches, while Xiang’s Xtreme has not; that money buys Mao’s some prime internet real estate, and you more often than not check them out first, increasing their share of your local Chinese food market.

Well, that’s just Advertising 101, right? Pay for placement, and you’ll raise awareness of your brand and increase business, simple. But what if it goes deeper than just places to get extra MSG in your diet and floats into the political arena. Now, when you do a search on local politicians, the results for the guy whose campaign manager paid for preferential searching might fail to bring up the minor scandal of the day while also bringing up results including stories from years ago mentioning their opponent’s most embarrassing political gaffes when you search his name. Again, this is just advertising, right? It’s just fair and free expression, with the market of ideas being regulated by the invisible hand, nothing untoward, right? Or are we looking at something a little more corrosive to our political process? Is this something that could potentially derail democracy? Spreading it further, we already know how effective misinformation is when it’s propagated through cable news, what about when it’s displayed right on people’s glasses as they’re going about their business?

Something we all need to be aware of as we step into this new reality is who holds the gate keys when it comes to how information is delivered to us. The kind of stealth censorship that can result when a search provider decides that the money to be made by customizing their search algorithms to suit paying customers is something we already see whenever we open our gmail pages. Right there on the side of the page is “targeted advertising” based on the contents of your emails. Having a private conversation with your significant other about what (didn’t) happen last night? Just look to the right, and there’s a helpful link pointing you at some little blue pills. Now, are we really so gullible as to think that governments haven’t made note of this kind of thing and looked for ways to play the game to their own advantage (or rather, for the advantage of their patrons)? It may not be happening here just yet, but most of us have already heard of the Great Firewall of China, and it’s not hard to imagine something like that elsewhere in the world. The rapid spread of information across the globe is a two-edged sword for world leaders; on the one hand, it allows them to respond quickly to situations happening thousands of miles away, but on the other hand, it also means that the truth about what they do in their own countries gets out just as fast as it happens, and oppressing your people in private is becoming a thing of the past.

If a government were to do something like our local restaurants and tweak people’s search results to favour their current policies and agendas, is that a legitimate use of the system, or is it something we should be putting protections against in place? The way we use the internet is becoming more and more like the way we use our own memories, wouldn’t we have a serious problem with the government or corporations tinkering around with the way our memories work? As we increasingly depend on our web-enabled devices for every little thing and get a growing amount of our news and information from it in what we think is a more transparent manner than broadcast and print news and media can provide, the prospect of anybody rigging the way we are able to think about certain things makes the censorship of the past look like nothing in comparison. This is the kind of thing that would have made George Orwell sit bolt upright in the middle of the night, and yet it’s not really something we’re talking about in a serious way. I mean, just think of how people would react with outrage if we heard that a corporation was buying up news outlets in order to suppress certain stories and demonize their opponents, we wouldn’t sit still for that sort of thi- . . .

Crap.

So, I guess the take home message here is either get ready to get your Walden on in the nearest bit of wilderness to get off the grid, or just get used to the idea that in the near future, our memories will be filtered by people we’ve never met for purposes we may have nothing to do with. But at least the resolution level is going to be fantastic.