Three months with Alexa

At our annual sales kickoff in January, I was the lucky winner of an Amazon Dot. The Dot is the slimmed-down version of the Echo, and my expectations were high.
I was concerned that the device wouldn't function at all, as I live in Germany, but that concern was completely unnecessary - Alexa takes commands both in English and German!

You really have to define your query or command very clearly, however. Any deviation into dialect or changing the speaking rhythm leaves Alexa clueless.

While you can add new capabilites ("skills") to Alexa, many of these will likely be as forgotten as that odd app you installed on your smartphone but don't use because it is on the 5th app page…

All in all, I'm glad the device was free, as I would have been disappointed by a purchased version. Alexa (and speech command technology) has a long way to go, obviously!

Fake free DVD software scam

Since Apple has discontinued putting iDVD on Macs, I was looking for an alternative program to produce a DVD from my recently put together movie. Sure, I searched and found - amongst others - this blog entry at a company called iSkysoft. They make (or resell, not sure) various software for Apple and Windows, including video editing and DVD production software ("DVD burners").

In the blog entry, they to through 10 free DVD production programs for the Mac… conveniently putting theirs in first place.
"iSkysoft DVD Creator for Mac (macOS Sierra) provides all the features that all free DVD burning software has and works better with more new features"
So far so good.

As it turns out, though, the software puts a watermark on all DVD output… something you don't learn ANYWHERE (not in the description, not in the software itself) until you actually spend (quite a bit of) time to test it out.

Folks from iSkysoft, this is completely unacceptable! I would venture to say that this is borderline fraud. I feel scammed. If you advertise something as free, then it better work as described - and there is no mention of a watermark anywhere. Its a scam, clear and simple. All I can say is: I guarantee that I will never even consider looking at another product from this con artist company!

Video Editing Experiences

OK, sure, I've used iMovie multiple times to put together YouTube videos or add together a few clips with fadeovers to a single movie to share within the family. Nothing complicated, and iMovie is great for that.

This summer, however, I agreed to film three different productions: a children's musical my kids both played in, the leaving-elementary-school musical my daughter played in and a play performed by the local junior acting group during our wine fest. I figured I could produce at least decent quality video with my Canon 60D, though I realized the built-in microphone would never cut the cake.

So I picked up a
Røde SVM Pro and did some tests during the final practice session of the children's musical. Even with the excellent Røde mic, you run into some beams when you film using the 60D. For one thing, getting your levels right on the 60D with the regular firmware is really not easy, as you don't see the level meters while filming (why not, Canon - was it really that hard to program???). I did some research on the web and found Magic Lantern, an alternate firmware add-on for the 60D that gives you a lot of info on screen as you film. However, that add-on isn't flashed into the camera, it loads off the SD card every time the camera restarts. Which means once you swap SD cards with one that doesn't have the software on it, and you're SoL.

To make a long story short, I ended up reading a lot of articles and watching a lot of videos on different external recording devices and ended up buying the Tascam ___, which has a lot of nifty features and is made to be used in exactly such a setting. You screw your DSLR on top of the Tascam and it onto your tripod. Connect the Røde into channels 3+4 on the recorder and a stereo cable from the recorder DSLR audio output to the external mic jack on the 60D and you're all set to go.

One issue that even Magic Lantern doesn't fix is the 4GB recording limit on the 60D (or any other DSLR you care to use). Obviously so, as that limit, which gives you around 12 minutes of recording time, doesn't originate from some obscure law that doesn't permit longer recordings than 12 minutes on a DSLR (as some internet accounts will want you to believe) - the issue is that with all current DSLRs going by the
DCF standard, the file system used for the 60D SD-Card is FAT32 (or some variant of that)! This damn format as been around since MS-DOS, folks! The problem is simple, of course: a standard Windows system (which, unfortunately, a good percentage of DSLR users are stuck with) can't read any modern file systems other than NTFS (which, in itself, is from the 90's). And FAT32 (or even ExFAT) simply can't deal with a file larger than 4GB.

So now there is an issue: after about 12 minutes, the camera recording just stops. There isn't an option to have it restart with a new file, either (in Magic Lantern, this can be selected). Not only would I have to be quite wary about the current recording to end, but also how would I fill the gaps between one recording and the next? Even if I cought the end of the recording immediately - or stopped it manually to restart, there would be a gap in the video of a couple of seconds. The need for a second camera became obvious. Keep vigilant to catch either the end of the recording time for a segment or stop it at an opportune moment and make sure the second camera was already running to make up for the missing material.

That sounds complicated, but with a bit of practice, it actually isn't that difficult. I ended up running up to three cameras at once: the 60D, my Fujifilm X100T and a (borrowed) Panasonic HD mini-camcorder. That plus the Tascam recording from the Røde Mic. In one recording session (the musical was performed four times), I even plugged into the AV mixer to record the direct wireless headset mikes onto tracks 1&2.

I used a similar setup with the other two events (sans the direct AV mixer input), leaving me with three projects to put together into one contiguous video each. And this is where things got really hard.

The version of iMovie I have on my laptop is the newest one from the App Store. And instead of making things better, Apple apparently really dumbed this software down. I have seen YouTube videos of people showing iMovie 11 doing multiple camera editing… something the current version isn't able to do. Why, Apple??? Oh, I get it - to sell more copies of Final Cut Pro, of course!

I started researching again. There are actually quite a lot of different video editing packages available for Mac computers - from very simple (and relatively inexpensive) products to professional software costing upwards of €800. Final Cut Pro runs €300, so it is actually "reasonable" in comparison. I tried a software called
Filmora Video Editor, which permits editing with multiple camera streams and even multiple audio streams. Unfortunately, this software failed for me as it doesn't how the waveform in the audio streams (required to sync up audio and video), and because - for some reason - it produced runaway audio with the audio track (i.e. audio that runs just a fraction of a percent faster than the video and subsequently gets out of sync more and more… sorry, there is probably a pro term for this, but I don't know it).

I checked into some other editors, all in the 20-100€ range, but none cut the cake. Most of them didn't permit multiple camera streams to be added and switched between.

Next, I downloaded the trial version of Final Cut Pro - I was getting desperate. Multi-camera editing is possible in FCP - along with adding separate audio tracks - something which, of course, is quite common in the Video Maker space out there. After seeing
this enlightening video, it seemed that FCP would be the ideal solution, as it even syncs up the different streams by the audio content (along with your audio content). Unfortunately, FCP is quite complex (even though I'm sure Apple has done everything to make it as simple to use as possible) and I wasn't able to get the syncing to work. And then, there is the price, of course.

I'd discovered - again via a
YouTube video I'd come across by searching for multicam editing - ScreenFlow previously, but hadn't tested it yet. After the first fail in FCP, I decided to give it a shot, even though it seemed more a software to produce screen cam movies. Talk about being pleasantly surprised! I'll report on my success (or failure) with this software soon.

Bye, bye Evernote!

I've been an Evernote user for years - in fact, my earliest notes are from 2009!
And I've been quite a fan of the application / service even though the GUI hasn't become any easier to use in the last years and note taking with bullets still breaks…

The drive to get users to move to the paid version of the service has been getting more and more annoying recently. To make this quite clear: I have no issues in paying for a service if I find the for-charge version gives me added value. With Evernote, I don't have that added value. I'd also pay something for the current level of service I have (which is sufficient), but not the full amount of the premium service (60$ per year). Evernote does offer a "Plus" level for 30$ per year, but honestly: I haven't figured out what advantage that brings me over the basic level.

Today, I read an email from Evernote that states that the basic level will be reduced to two devices synching with the cloud data. Now I understand who the "Plus" level is intended for: just about anyone. Because who doesn't have more than 2 devices to sync to? Well, ok, there probably are people like that. I sync to both my MacBooks, to my iPhone and to two iPads.

So instead of adding really cool features (like proper bullet list functionality or predictive search) to get people to subscribe to a paid account, Evernote is doing - in my opinion - the worst thing to users: they are reducing functionality for no-charge users.

This is politics I'm not willing to subscribe to. So I'm doing what I should have done long ago: I'm using the excellent
Import from Evernote functionality of my DevonThink Pro. This, I can sync without the need for a potentially unsafe cloud service both to my other MacBook as well as my iDevices.

Sorry, Evernote, I'm afraid you've lost a long-time user and potential customer!
Bye bye!


AR, Hololens and the Future

Just a few days ago, I watched a fascinating TED Talk about Microsoft's Hololens.
Sure, the device is huge and the real number crunching likely happens on an 8-core Windows PC connected via some sort of wireless connection.

This excellent blog entry brought me back down to earth.

Gartner-Study: Borderline Rediculous

Here is a new study by Gartner that really gets my goat. Who on earth thought of putting operating systems for different types of equipment into the same study?

Matching MacOS vs. Windows or Android vs. iOS is ok, but what’s the point of throwing them all into the same pot? And: why is Linux missing? Linux is - in one form or another - likely to be the most-used OS anyway.

Most NAS units, plenty of IT-Appliances (Routers, Access Points, Firewalls, etc.), Car Radios, consumer equipment, some Smartphones, etc. run Linux. Had Linux been included, my educated guess would be that it beats all of the named OS’s hands down.

Ah, by the way Gartner, did you forget that both Android and Chrome are based on Linux?

C’mon Gartner, don’t you have better and more intelligent things to do?


Bait-and-Switch in an Apple Store?

During our visit to the US, my wife was in the market for a new iPhone 5c. Not far from where we stayed (San Jose, CA), there was an Apple Store in a mall. Off we went, since - oddly enough - that model was cheaper at Apple than at other stores that sold the device.

My wife wanted a 16GB pink model and the friendly “dude” that helped us found it to be in stock - for the expected $599. Out came the box, he scanned the barcode and said “that’ll be $756.67, please”. Seeing as sales tax in CA is 8.25%, I would have caught that after a hard night of drinking.

Not unexpected, the model they retrieved was the 32GB one. When we pointed out the error, he dove back into the storage area in the back of the store, only to come out with the info that the 16GB model seemed to be out of stock (what, Apple doesn’t keep track of its merchandise electronically?) and asked if we wanted to get the 32GB model instead.

We declined and opted for a yellow 16GB model, which was retrieved and paid for. Apparently, while searching for the yellow model, the pink one magically reappeared, as a colleague came out of the dungeon with it and our sales guy exchanged the yellow one we’d bought for the pink.

Okay, maybe they don’t have their warehouse under control, but quite honestly, it sure felt like a bait-and-switch to me...

Windows 8 - What a Disaster

My wife bought a new laptop recently. She was a bit shocked to find that you can’t buy a laptop anymore with Windows 7 on it - they simply aren’t on offer.

So Windows 8 is what she is stuck with. I had the appealing job of getting the thing configured and up and running. If you’ve read previous blog entries, you’ll know that I’m not one of Redmond’s biggest fans (and I don’t mean the city, folks), even though I have to admit that Windows 7 was an improvement on XP (Vista, after all, isn’t an operating system. If you want to read about disease, check a medical website).

I wasn’t prepared for Windows 8, quite honestly. I’d seen it used by my contact at Microsoft when it first came out. He did, however, have a touchscreen laptop. My first impression has stuck: what a load of crap. Microsoft really outdid themselves in alienating just about every user with possible exception of those that are religiously motivated and have elevated the ex-Gates-company to demigod status.

I should be happy - after all, I own Apple stock (which certainly won’t decline due to Windows 8 being out there), but having become the designated “admin” for this abomination of a GUI, I suffer.

A few examples:

Because the touchpad just of this (plastic-case) laptop just isn’t on par with my MacBook Pro one, I plugged in a USB mouse. Mind you, it wasn’t one of those “42-button-jobbers” where the wheel doesn’t just rotate but also clicks down and left and right. I would have accepted (not expected!) some difficulty in getting a driver installed. This was a €7 mouse with the most basic of functionality. What happened when I plugged the rodent in?


For minutes on end, nothing happened. Not a single message, status bar or other indication, that the device was even alive (the LED on the bottom was on, though, so at least it had juice). After a good two minutes, all of a sudden, the thing worked. No message telling you that whatever Windows 8 had been doing was finished and that you could use the mouse.

In fact, Windows 8 doesn’t tell you very much at all about what it is and isn’t doing. Ok, Windows has always had some issues with progress bars and the lot (remember those funny ones telling you a certain operation would take about 3 x 10E15 minutes?), but this silence is oppressive!

It starts when you boot up the computer by presenting you with a black screen for quite some time (while, I presume, the OS is starting in the background). You don’t know wether the thing has crashed, has turned itself off or what is going on until, all of a sudden, it presents a happy, colorful screen with the Seattle Space Needle (what, doesn’t Redmond have a landmark?) and some rolling hills. Now what? No idea!

Another example: after taking quite some time on figuring out how to get to the (Windows XP-looking) Control Panel, I wanted to use it to delete the users that had been added (see bottom for the reason why). You’re presented with old-style dialogs (that don’t fit with the new look and feel at all), but when you click the final “OK” to delete the user and all their files, nothing happens. The button doesn’t even react. No rotating hour glass, no status bar, nothing. Then all of a sudden, Win 8 is done and relinquishes control.

What, are you trying to cater to the I’ve-never-used-a-PC crowd here, Microsoft? Do you think they appreciate not getting any sort of feedback from actions they have taken (or possibly not taken)? Do you really think they will be going out to buy a Windows 8 device of any sort? Sorry, Microsoft, those people bought an iPad long before you came out with your unloved Surface tablet!

I very much doubt that more than 10% of regular windows users are happy or willing to switch to this disastrous GUI.

The age of POP is long gone, I thing most people that know what it is would agree. With the plethora of devices that people use every day to read their mail, retrieving it from the server to a single device just isn’t sensible.
IMAP has been around since 1986 and is a really stable technology. It lets you keep your emails on a server and read and delete them from multiple devices. Pretty cool, really.

Would you believe that Outlook 13 doesn’t support IMAP anymore? Aside from the preferred Exchange or Office 360 accounts, Outlook 13 (which, folks, is made for Windows 8) only supports POP for send/receive. You can add a send-only account for “accounts that can’t use POP”. I have no idea if this means IMAP, but what the heck am I going to do with a send-only email account? Sounds like the right tool for a spammer, but not for a regular user.

Folks, I’m open-minded - really, I am. I’ve used lots of different operating systems with different GUIs, but I’ve never come across something so inconsistent as the Windows 8 GUI. You aren’t guided as a user, you have to learn it. What good is a modern GUI if you have to read a manual to use it?

I hate to do this, because it’ll make me seem biased (again), but if you look at the iOS GUI, you’ll find that there is built-in guidance (at least for apps that follow the GUI guidelines) on how to use the interface and applications built on it. You know intuitively, how to get to the settings for a particular app and you know what to expect when you do a certain action (like tapping on a button or swiping something). Yes, there are apps out there that don’t work this way, but most of them do. I’ve seen octogenarians getting into using iOS. I don’t have to tell you what happens when you hand an iPad to a toddler - there is plenty of videos on YouTube that show you just how user-friendly iOS is.

I wonder what would happen if you handed a Surface tablet (which uses the same interface) to a child. Chances are, it would toss the thing in a corner quite quickly, highly frustrated by its illogical interface.

What really kills me about the new GUI though, is the fact that you’ve got age-old settings dialogs that pop up (after you learn for 1/2h on how to get to them from an online manual), reminiscent of Windows 2000. Probably haven’t changed since then. It’s just such a mixed bag of elements and styles that it is bound to be a failure.

The Church of Microsoft
“Thou shalt not downgrade if though aren’t worthy!” That’s the message, folks. If you read about this topic on blogs and in articles, you’ll find that the majority of the Windows 8 jaded have tried to get back to something halfway usable.

Apparently, MS only permits a downgrade to Windows 7 for “Windows 8 Professional” licenses. If you have a “Windows 8 Home Pro” (or whatever its called), you’re SOL. Okay - a long shot, but: I finally found a screen that would tell me, amongst other things, what Windows version was installed. Guess what I found there? “Windows 8”. Great. No shit, sherlock.

I’ve checked several articles on downgrading and all indicate unisono, that MS has done a great job of making this as hard as possible...


We’re now planning to either return the laptop and try to find one with Windows 7 on it or to get it downgraded. I’ll keep you posted.

Real Growth from the Internet?

In an interesting article on wether the Internet has led to real growth since its inception, BloombergBusinessweek has put together a real whopper of criticism on the expectations the web has raised even in financial experts.

They write that “…the Internet has been behind a massive shift in our use of time during the past two decades, and not necessarily one that has generated a huge amount of positive feelings.”