Hi, Cortana!

Cortana in Halo

More personality than Google Now and more personal than Siri. Cortana is Microsoft’s personal assistant, providing a natural language interface to Windows Phone 8.1. Even though Cortana is not available in the UK yet, I switched my regional settings to US to enable her.

If you don’t know already, Cortana takes her name from the AI computer in the Halo series of video games, published by Microsoft Studios for the Xbox. In the Halo universe, she assists Master Chief throughout their adventures – getting emotionally attached along the way.

Hi, Jules!

Today’s Cortana shares the same name, voice and some of the attitude, though the primary focus is for her to be a loyal employee. The development team went out and interviewed real personal assistants – the ones who look after calendars and communications for business executives. The aim was to build a personal assistant who is able to anticipate the needs of their boss – the user – before they know what they need.

Cortana Tile Animation

While Cortana doesn’t share the same visual appearance of her namesake, the abstract appearance is probably one of the smartest moves the development team could have made. Using animations to give emotion, Cortana will look pleased to see you when you load her up, as well as looking thoughtful when processing requests. It’s my understanding this will be expanded and improved upon as time goes on, allowing her to look sad when your favourite sports team has just lost a match.

“remind me to go running when I get home”

The speech recognition is really good, though you don’t have to speak to her every time you want her to do something. You can type in an instruction in the same way you would speak it “remind me to go running when I get home” and she’ll silently confirm that she understood your intentions. This is a great feature, and I can see a lot of potential for this text based interaction. If I can switch to Cortana while writing code and just type a request without taking my hands off the keyboard – I’d be very happy. (PowerShell module anyone?)

Go running when you get home

Reminders through Cortana are very powerful for me in many ways. I use my Office 365 calendar all the time – and Cortana can interact with that by creating and managing appointments, but she can also create what I like to call ‘disposable reminders’ which are essentially one-off reminders that are based on time or location.

The places Cortana knows are powered by the Bing Maps service, something I’ve already been using for years. From day-one I had the benefit of Cortana already knowing about the dozens of places around the world I’d previously marked as favourites.

Bing Maps for Windows 8.1

Cortana now lets me to go one step further by giving these places a nickname. This allows me to say things like “remind me to pick up eggs when I go to the shop” and she’ll know I mean my village shop.

If I want to be a little less specific, I can say “remind me to pick up eggs when I go to Tesco” and Cortana will ask me “which Tesco?” and I can reply “Any”. This is great for when you are traveling or staying away from home and just want to use any store. She’ll also tell you which one is closest, naturally.

Bing Maps for Windows Phone 8.1

Travel can also be tracked by Cortana, though I haven’t had the opportunity to try it yet. It’s my understanding that she can track flights as well as provide useful information like weather and currency exchange rates for your local destinations.

Cortana Diagram

Already I have gotten used to having Cortana around. For example, I often use my Surface in bed with a stylus. This lets me write down my thoughts in OneNote. When I’m using a pen like this in a full screen experience – I don’t want to switch the search app, bring up the on-screen keyboard, or type in a query to get results. I can just pick up my nearby phone and speak a query like “how large is mars” or “how old is Patrick Stewart”

Cortana Bing Search

Answers to queries like these are also powered by Bing – my search engine of choice. However she does get stumped at some things. For example, when I asked her the current phase of the moon, she didn’t know the answer.

Things will no doubt get better though, and I already think she’s become a valuable asset to me in the pursuit of getting things done, and being productive.

Hi, Cortana! I hope we can be friends.

Wacom Bamboo Stylus for Surface Pro

Wacom Bamboo

I have enjoyed using pen input for Windows since my first Tablet PC. Using a pen allows you to draw and make notes using ink, as well as be more precise with the cursor when required. Personally I find the pen that comes with the Surface Pro 2 to be quite agreeable… but I do know that people generally complain about a couple of points.

The first is that you clip the pen on the side where the charging port is – this is a bit like an after thought, but when space is a premium – it’s not a surprise.

The second is that it’s a bit light and plasticky for a £25 pen.

There’s not much you can do about the first one complaint, but the Bamboo Stylus Feel is a good alternative if you want to have a premium pen-like feel.

Wacom Bamboo

As the price of the Bamboo Stylus feel had come down to less than £10, so I thought I’d try it out. If didn’t like it, at least I’d have a spare!

I haven’t had a chance to use it very long yet, but already I can tell that it is well worth the money. The build quality is very high, and it feels a lot more premium than the Surface Pen. The weight is good, and the length is slightly longer than the Surface Pen when you place the cap on the end, or shorter when you put it away.

Wacom Bamboo

It feels great on the screen – slightly softer and less slippery than the Surface Pen. The accuracy is also really good – I had no issues using it right away with the default calibration on the Surface Pro 2, without installing any extra software.

The button on the side (which lets you right-click) is totally flush with the barrel, so it’s a little hard to find by touch alone. There also isn’t an eraser on the other end, a feature which I really enjoy on the Surface Pen.

It’s worth noting that the packaging stated that it was for the Samsung Galaxy 10.1, but it worked on the Surface Pro 2 without any problems. Be sure to check that the one you get includes the ‘Wacom feel IT‘ technology. There’s also a Carbon version – if you’re interested.

This is going to be the stylus I carry around in my bag with me, but when I’m doing art work, I’ll have both handy.

Pros

  • Cheaper than the Surface Pen
  • Higher quality than the Surface Pen
  • Feels great when writing on the screen

Cons

  • No eraser on the end
  • Button is flush with the barrel

Will Neovim rock on Windows?

Gvim on Windows 8

I have been using Vim on Windows since I switched to 64-bit and edit.com stopped working. Originally I just used the console version inside of PowerShell or the standard command line. In the last three years I’ve been favouring Gvim as my go-to text editor for smaller scripts and utilities.

I know for a fact I’m not using everything Gvim or Vim has to offer, but I’m quite happy with the way it works. For example, I have line numbers turned off, but I can turn them on very easily using a quick :set nu.

Very powerful, very fast.

There are some things I absolutely hate though. For starters, what’s this horrible border on the inside of the window, and how can I make it disappear without hacking the whole application and recompiling it? This isn’t Windows 95.

Ugly Border

I’ve looked for some time but I haven’t found a solution. But hey, I found out that people can make it look pretty on Ubuntu (handy!)

Enter Neovim

Neovim promises to be a refactoring (and reimagining) of the Vim text editor using more modern techniques. The plan is to have the core Vim functionality moved into a new library, which will allow the interfaces to be separated out in a modular way.

The thing that got me really interested? When they mentioned Windows:

Modern GUIs written in high-level programming languages that integrate better with the operating system. We can have GUIs written using C#/WPF on Windows or Ruby/Cocoa on OS X, for example.

True they’re not saying they will write a GUI using C# & WPF, but someone can. And I like the sound of that. Of course, it’ll be open source – and I’ll be able to edit the XAML to have no borders at all, if I like.

Also, here’s hoping we get better PowerShell integration out of this too.

It could be huge.

So, will Neovim rock on Windows? I sure hope so.

Mars and The Moon in April 2014

Star Chart

When I was looking at my Star Chart application last week, I noticed that on the evening of the 14th of April Mars would nice and close to the Moon in Virgo. I set myself a reminder walk up my closest hill and take some snaps.

The Moon and Mars

With almost-full Moon this bright you can’t get both celestial objects in the same shot without either Mars being too dark, or the Moon being be too bright. I don’t think it matters in this photo though, you can clearly see Mars, Theta Virginis and Spica through the trees.

I think it all looks rather nice.

Glow of the City

While I was up there waiting for it to get dark I took a few more photos. Above you can see the glow of Leeds in the evening sky, and below you can see Jupiter in Gemini.

Summer Sky

Later on in the evening, my American friends were able to enjoy a nice lunar eclipse. Here’s a lovely photograph taken by Jon Philpott through his telescope.

Lunar Eclipse by Jon Philpott

It’s a great time to be a Microsoft-focused software developer

The Build 2014 conference took place in San Francisco last week, where thousands of developers and designers came together to learn all the latest information about what it means to use Microsoft development tools, and build solutions that run on Microsoft platforms.

I have over 137 GB of videos yet to watch, but I can already say that it has been one of the best Microsoft developer conferences to date.

Here are my thoughts so far, with a few links to some of my highlights.

.NET is alive and well – and becoming more open

build-2014-4

There was a general feeling that .NET developers had been left behind in recent years. A strong push to using HTML and JavaScript really got some people worried when Windows 8 was announced – but at Build 2014 the message was loud and clear. The .NET platform is alive and well.

It’s almost as if they asked .NET developers what would make them really happy, and set about doing all those things. For me, personally, I was most excited by the promise of open-sourcing even more of the framework, including the brand-new compiler platform (Roslyn) that has been years in the making.

Initiatives like .NET Native will allow applications built with C# and Visual Basic to get much closer performance to applications created with C++. Starting first with Windows Store apps, these architecture specific binaries will increase performance at runtime without losing the productivity of developing with the architecture-agnostic .NET Framework.

Roslyn and .NET Native are in preview, and won’t be completed until the next version of Visual Studio. But there have also been a wide range of updates to the ASP.NET web platform, MVC, Entity Framework and way more – most of which are either available now with Visual Studio 2013 Update 2, or can be downloaded using packages from NuGet.

You can tell Windows is under new leadership

build-2014-1

Cortana – the new assistant built into Windows Phone 8.1 – was the highlight of the show. There had been rumours of Microsoft’s answer to Siri and Google Now for quite some time, so a lot of the information had already come out. But still, it was great to see Joe Belfiore talking to her publicly for the first time, confirming what Halo fans were waiting for: yes she is called Cortana, and yes, she sounds like Cortana.

As Cortana is such a huge step for Microsoft, I’ll be going in depth on what I think over the next few weeks.

Cortana wasn’t the only addition to Windows Phone 8.1, there were hundreds of new features and tweaks to the UI that will take weeks to be documented – the new calendar is just one of these. I’ve tried it in the emulator and it’s really great. The developer preview is due this month.

As a developer, the news of Universal Apps was very welcome. This allows high amounts of code sharing between applications designed for both Windows and Windows Phone. I can’t wait to try this stuff out, especially with the new JavaScript support.

Windows 8.1 has some new features too. The much-leaked Windows 8.1 Update includes changes to how the operating system behaves with a keyboard and mouse – though these changes are only the start of the improvements that are coming.

Azure is the future, and already here

build-2014-3

Microsoft’s cloud platform has improved tremendously over the last few years and this year was no exception – in fact, there were so many new features I can’t even begin to go through them all. Some I probably won’t even use (Java? No thanks.) but I know the option is there, which will inform my decisions for cloud hosting in the future.

Scott Guthrie and his team talked at great length about new features that will improve productivity for ‘DevOps’ tasks significantly. For example, the new Azure Portal includes the ability to view statistics, create new infrastructure, build new virtual machines, deploy websites and even do code changes with Git source control – all from one UI.

I already use Azure as part for my personal projects, as well as Visual Studio online as my source code repository. I plan on using it even more in the future – so I’m pleased to see Microsoft lead in this area. And they really are leading.

It doesn’t have to be Windows & .NET

build-2014-2

Times have certainly changed, and PCs that run Windows are no longer the most popular computing devices. As a predominantly Microsoft developer, this makes me wonder about the future. This year’s Build has continued the recent trend of Microsoft supporting other platforms in new ways – plus with partnerships with like likes of Xamarin, I see no reason to even contemplate switching over to Android (the most popular platform) in the foreseeable future.

While I was hoping that there would be the announcement of a Xamarin acquisition, they didn’t disappoint. It was great to see Maguel even joining Anders on stage during the keynote. Both of these guys are very smart, and I look forward to what else the partnership can bring. Being able to develop universal apps that also target iOS and Android is not very far away at all.

What’s your every day carry? 2014 Edition

In 2012 I did both what’s in your bag and what’s your every day carry posts, and this year I have decided to revisit both.

Also check out What’s in your bag? 2014 Edition

What's your every day carry?

Windows Phone

My Windows Phone of choice at the moment is the Nokia Lumia 920. If I had to pick a new one today I’d go for the 1020 because of the impressive camera – however I’m going to continue to use the 920 until the next generation of phones powered by Windows Phone 8.1 hit the market. (Very soon!)

Wallet

I am still using an All-Ett wallet, and this one – the small leather ‘sports’ version – is still going strong after getting it in June 2012.

Keys

I carry two keys with me all the time, and I’m still keeping it as simple as possible. I am also still carrying the Swiss Tech Utili-Key, because you get so much for such a small package.

Fitbit

I’ve recently started carrying a Fitbit One with me all the time. This passively records statistics like number of steps and calories burned. It has quickly become an essential item for keeping track of my health and fitness – and I even purchased a second device immediately when I realised I had lost my original one.

Pro-tip: Don’t lose it!

What's your every day carry?

What’s changed?

I no longer carry earphones with me, as I keep a pair in the office and I have a pair at home. Both are the Nokia Purity in-ear type. I like them.

The addition of the Fitbit One is something pretty recent, and I’ll be keeping an eye on other wearable devices that are compatible with Windows moving forward – I love getting all the statistics.

Last of all, I’d like to mention that while this is the minimum I carry, it’s not the only things – when I’m out doing astronomy I have a set of items I take with me, and I recently got a new bag to carry my personal computers around when visiting friends and family.

What’s in your bag? 2014 Edition

In 2012 I did both what’s in your bag and what’s your every day carry posts, and this year I have decided to revisit both.

Also check out What’s your every day carry? 2014 Edition

What’s in your bag?

Unchanged since around 2008, I still carry my Tumi work backpack which I carry into the office every day. If you’re interested in what I carry with me when I’m not at work then have a look at my Knomo Kilkenny bag for Microsoft Surface.

Dell Laptop

My work laptop is a pretty powerful Dell M4600 with an Intel Core i7 processor and 8 gigs of RAM. I’ve had less problems with this machine than the old HP I used to use, so you won’t hear any complaints from me. Though I have had my eye on the newer Dell workstations that include up to 32 gigs of RAM. Yes please.

USB Stick and USB Cable

It’s a tradition of mine to get a new USB stick every time I change jobs. This one contains debuggers, software installers, eBooks, and backups of my scripts and utilities. I never use these USB sticks for personal information about me, my employer or my clients – it only has the software I need to get up and running.

I also carry a standard micro USB cable, because you never know when it’ll be handy for charging my phone.

Notebooks

I still carry two Moleskine notebooks, but these days I track a lot more work stuff in OneNote – so the black work notebook has become more of a check list for most important tasks with space for notes. I tend to use about two pages a week.

Keys and Pencil Case

I carry a couple of keys with me in my work bag, including ones I need while I’m in the office. I also carry a small pencil case which includes the following:

What’s in your bag?

What’s changed?

The biggest change is the computer, and thankfully I no longer carry my charging adapter with me all the time, as I have a docking station in the office. I keep a spare charger at home, and if I ever need to go see a client I can just take that with me. Thanks to my recently replaced battery, I actually have plenty of power to do email and other tasks when I get home without needing to plug in anyway.

The next biggest change is probably the lack of paper notes. I used to carry a MUJI document folder with various printed specifications and other helpful documents. These days I try to print out as little as possible – mostly for security reasons.

I don’t carry a mouse in my bag either, again this is because my docking station at work is already set up with my Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard and Mobile Mouse. I have a spare mouse at home, for if I need it.

Finally, the Zune HD has been retired – these days I listen to Xbox Music, and when I’m at work that means my Lumia 920 – which is part of my Every Day Carry.

Using LEDs for Monitor Back Lighting

Dell Ultrawide monitor with LED Backlight

I recently set up a new development workstation for my Surface Pro 2 to plug into when I’m at home. The desk is a lot more comfortable to use for long periods when when compared to using my old MacBook on my lap. The biggest part of my desk setup is the 29 inch Ultrawide (21:9) Dell monitor, which is significantly larger than the 10.6 inch screen on the Surface Pro 2, and much nicer to use when writing software.

I have to say it has been really fantastic to have such a big, bright screen – but eye strain is a very real problem when working with computers for a long time. In my flat it’s especially problematic at night, and just about any time of the day in the darker winter months. Unsurprisingly, I’m more likely likely to be sitting in front of the computer at these times of the day, so something has to be done.

In the past I have used software solutions to try and reduce the potential for eye strain; I highly recommend that people try using F.lux to change the colour temperature of the display. Changing the colour of the screen to a warmer glow is certainly easier on the eyes, but it comes at a cost of changing the colour temperature of everything the screen is displaying. I don’t mind the colours being warmer in certain circumstances, so I use F.lux all the time on my work laptop.

I didn’t want to set it up on my Surface Pro 2, simply because the colour reproduction is really gorgeous on the tablet’s screen. So this time I thought I’d try a new approach to solving the eye strain problem.

Dell Ultrawide monitor with LED Backlight

I’ve attached LEDs to the back of the monitor to give the screen some back lighting. There are two strips of white LEDs which are powered by the two USB ports on the underside of the monitor. I tried a few different arrangements of the strips, and I found that having the strips quite high up ended up with the best result, while the distribution is obviously greater at the top – it looks absolutely fine when you’re sat in front of the screen.

The white LED back lighting is certainly on the blue-end of the spectrum when compared to the warm ambient light of the room, but it matches the cooler glow of my Ultrawide Dell monitor really well. Coincidently, the power LEDs on the monitor and sound bar also match the white back lighting. It’s a small detail, but it certainly helps the overall look of the setup.

Less than a month in, and I’m already thinking that this will factor into my plans for all my future workstations. I feel like having good lighting around the computer really helps with concentration and reducing eye strain.

Tracking Health & Fitness with Windows

Running Shoes

These days I use a combination of software and hardware to keep track of my health and fitness in a way that I never have been able to previously. There’s no one vender that covers everything I want, but the software I’m using all works fairly well with my Windows devices.

Bing Health & Fitness is an application for Windows and Windows Phone which – as you may have guessed from the name – helps people with tasks related to health, and fitness. This is probably the most used software I have for actively recording information, and I use it every day.

Entering diet information in to Bing Health & Fitness is fairly easy, there are a number of foods built into the database which you can select, or you can add your own with information about carbs, protein and fat – as well as calories. I have been using this on the Windows 8.1 app since it came out, but on the release of the Windows Phone app I’ve started entering the information on my Lumia more often than my Surface. Being able to enter this information on the phone itself is a lot more convenient and the live tile shows me the numbers, which also serves as a reminder for when I haven’t done it.

Health and Fitness apps on Windows Phone

Another feature that the Windows Phone version introduced is the GPS Tracking. Previously I’d have to enter in data about exercises into the Windows app with guess work as to how far I’d gone. The GPS Tracking feature lets you simply start and stop exercise activity, and provides a map as well as statistics on the speed and estimated calories burned. I use this as well as my Fitbit statistics so that I can see the difference between actual exercise effort against normal day-to-day activity.

Talking of the Fitbit – most of the data collected by this device is done with very little input from me. I walk a lot more than I used to thanks to the statistics, but I don’t manually enter any information through the Fitbit app itself – as mentioned above, all the non-passive food and activity data is handled by Bing Health & Fitness. I’m very pleased to say that the Fitbit does a great job of collecting my information without me having to do anything at all.

Fitbit

It doesn’t really matter which app I use though, as all of my information is stored in Microsoft’s HealthVault – an online service which allows secure storage of health and fitness information, which can be shared with friends, family or health care professionals. There are HealthVault apps for both Windows and Windows Phone which allow entry of information directly, as well as a website which allows some pretty comprehensive data exports – if you need them.

Basic information like my height and weight are entered directly into HealthVault itself using the apps, and these measurements are currently done using ‘dumb’ methods – in other words, normal bathroom scales. Maybe in the future I might look at getting wireless scales – or even something more advance than that – though I see very little point at the moment. Every other bit of information collected by both Bing Health & Fitness and Fitbit are synchronised with HealthVault automatically.

Another application that integrates with HealthVault is Health Choices, an app that’s also available on both Windows and Windows Phone devices. It acts as a front-end to the NHS Choices content provided by the National Health Service. This includes details about hospitals, surgeries and other places that are useful to keep track of. When saving these places, the contact and address information will also be saved directly into HealthVault.

Health Choices also induces a A-Z of various treatments and conditions which can also be saved onto HealthVault – I’ve found these extremely useful in keeping track of medical history and medications taken.

I’ve always had an interest in metrics and statistics anyway, and thanks to the technology available today with the Windows platform I’ve been able to really take control of these things. I’ve seen improvements in fitness and motivation, and the information in these applications has helped me make important decisions about where to get treated when I have been unwell.

Obviously, none of this stuff would be as effective as having a personal trainer, nor does it replace having a professional doctor – but being informed definitely helps.

Now that I’ve started keeping track, I’m not going to stop. In fact, I think it’s only going to get more comprehensive over time.

Kielder Aurora in February 2014

Last week I managed to find myself in Kielder around the time of the Kielder Forrest Star Camp which is held twice a year in the spring and autumn. On the Thursday night the UK was graced with a fine show of aurora – however (as is usually the way with these things) most of the evening we covered by cloud and rain.

Aurora over Kielder

I did manage to get a few shots though, and the above one is the first (not focussed!) photograph I took of the sky to try and work out if I could pick anything up – and I could! However you can already see the clouds starting to come in.

Aurora over Kielder

Even though cloud covers most of the sky, you can really see the colour shine through the gaps in this photo. I only managed to get a few more shots before the rain kicked in, and unfortunately the next day there wasn’t a sign of anything green in the sky.

This was my first experience of the aurora, and I was thrilled to be able to capture it.