Watching Gravity on Xbox Video

I don’t own any movies on DVD or Blu-ray. None at all. I gave up on DVD at the same time I stopped buying CDs, and I have never been interested in getting myself a Blu-ray player for movies either.

Most of the movies I watch are on Netflix, but once in a while a new movie comes along that I want to watch as soon as I can. In previous years there weren’t any decent (legal) ways to do this, but these days there are a number of options for getting movies online.

As a happy user of Xbox Music, I thought I’d give Xbox Video a try.

Xbox Video

Xbox Video is a streaming video service that lets you either rent or purchase movies, and watch them directly on your Xbox, Windows device or in a web browser.

The only video I’ve purchased on Xbox Video previously was Mean Girls – but that’s a 10 year old movie and didn’t include any of the fancy extras you get with SmartGlass.

When Gravity became available I purchased the HD version for £14.99. Because it’s purchased, rather than rented, I can watch it as many times as I want, including the SmartGlass extras.

Gravity

In Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone is a mission specialist on a Space Shuttle mission to Hubble, when an accident causes the rest of the crew to perish.

In a slightly unrealistic-but-more-realistic-than-most-movies turn of events she finds herself at the International Space Station, then to a Chinese Space Station in an attempt to get back home.

SmartGlass on Windows Phone

Through Xbox SmartGlass you get access to special content – which I believe is also included on the Blu-ray release. I have the option of accessing the extras through either my Windows Phone, or my Surface tablet. There are also apps available for both iOS and Android too, but I don’t have either of those devices.

My favourite part of the extra content was actually the video short, however I couldn’t get it to play full screen for some reason. Bit of a shame.

Xbox SmartGlass

In “Aningaaq”, we see the other end of the radio conversation that Stone has while in the Russian space craft. Aninqaaq, a fisherman in Greenland, is also dealing with death in his own way. This time we are provided with a translation for his side of the conversation, which is a great little extra to the movie.

Overall the Xbox SmartGlass experience was good, and more interesting when I watched the movie for the second time. I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a movie specifically for the extras before, and I’m not going to start – but it’s a good little bonus.

Gravity

Running JAR applications on Windows without installing the Java Virtual Machine

As part of my Open University course, I’m required to use a piece of open source software called Aladin Sky Atlas. This is maintained by Centre de données astronomiques de Strasbourg.

The program itself is actually pretty cool – it’s an interactive sky atlas, which allows you to view astronomical images along with information from the SIMBAD database and other sources.

The only problem with this program is that it uses Java, something I tend to avoid whenever possible. Installing Java on my Surface Pro 2 would mean I’d have more critical patches to install than I already do, and would open me up to a whole new attack vector. It’s not something I’d want to run on a tablet computer either.

(ノಠ益ಠ)ノ “Eww, Java!”

I originally tried using Hyper-V with a virtual machine running CentOS. This is a nice clean way of having ‘nothing running’ until it’s actually needed, but it’s quite an overhead to run a whole Linux operating system just to host a single app. Especially when battery life is a concern.

When searching around for a solution, I stumbled upon a really cool project that I’d never seen before. The IKVM.NET project includes a number of components for Java & .NET interoperability, but for this task I’m mostly interested in the Java Virtual Machine implementation.

By downloading the Windows binary of IKVM.NET, I’ve been able to run the application on my Windows 8.1 machine without requiring the JVM (or any other software) to be installed at all. This is a pretty fantastic achievement.

First I put the binaries into my apps folder (similar to my Vim setup), then I set up an alias to the executable using PowerShell.

# There's usually much more than this in my profile!
$SCRIPTSPATH  =  "C:\Users\Julian\Scripts"

Set-Alias ikvm   "$SCRIPTSPATH\Apps\ikvm\ikvm.exe"
Set-Alias ikvmc  "$SCRIPTSPATH\Apps\ikvm\ikvmc.exe"

# ikvmc.exe is cool too! have a look

After creating an alias in PowerShell I can just run it whenever I need.

PS> ikvm -jar aladin.jar

Obviously you could always set up a Windows Shortcut that does a similar thing, but that’s boring. Using PowerShell really suites me, as I often run applications this way.

Aladin Sky Atlas running on Windows without Java installed

The software doesn’t exactly look pretty, but these open source projects rarely do. Sometimes it looks like text hasn’t rendered as expected, but overall I’m really impressed.

If you’re looking to run JAR applications on Windows, without the Java Virtual Machine, then have a look at The IKVM.NET – it might work for your apps too.

Using Windows Reading List

When Windows 8.1 came out it included an application called Windows Reading List, which used the Share functionality of Windows to bookmark articles which can be read later.

Any application that shares the right kind of information can be used with Reading List, but the applications I use most often are Internet Explorer, Flipboard and the Bing applications.

Reading List

When you share an article to Reading List it asks you which category to use. I have set myself up with categories for software development resources, health and fitness information and general inspiration for life and work.

Adding articles on either Windows or Windows Phone will use your Microsoft account to synchronise automatically. This is completely seamless in both applications – meaning there are no options to configure these settings at all. I’m quite happy with this, but I know that some power users would prefer the option to choose how the information is synchronised with their computers.

Reading List and Internet Explorer in Reading Mode

When you use the application on Windows, clicking on one of the articles will open up another window next to the snapped reading list. I love this feature, and it really goes to show the strengths of multitasking with the modern interface in Windows.

Doing the same on the phone just opens Internet Explorer, the related application, or prompts you to search the store if you pick something that is incompatible. For example the Bing Wikipedia app isn’t currently available on Windows Phone, so clicking articles from this app prompt you to search the store.

Reading List for Windows Phone

The addition of the Windows Phone version of this application has really increased its use for me, however it’s obvious uses are diminished when used with older versions of Windows.

At work I use Windows 7 for my development machine, and there’s no way I can share interesting links found here with my Reading List. While I’m not expecting Microsoft to create a desktop app, a simple bookmarklet or browser extension would certainly do the job for collecting new articles to be read later.

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.