Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A trek in Tibet

One of my great passions is writing (hence this blog) and one morning a couple of weeks ago, I found myself in a idyllic location sitting at a desk in a “writers room”.

All set up at the writers desk

I owed it to myself and my gracious host to compose something whilst there and not squander an amazing opportunity.

Surrounded by so much beauty, this should have been an easy task, but I had to first tackle the exhaustion from my journey. It was proving a challenge to make the altitude adjustment. As I sat at the desk, I found myself panting after climbing just one short flight of steps!

I am in one of the many research centers of CERS (the China Exploration and Research Society), and my host is How Man Wong, the extraordinary founder and President of this incredible organisation.

How Man in the central building on the CERS site

It was a Wednesday morning when I ventured out of Dubai with my son, and 36 hours later, late on Thursday evening, we arrived ... to Shangri-La. 3,200 meters above sea level near the Tibetan Plateau!

It was dark upon our arrival and we were exhausted. We were provided with a wholesome meal (Yak meat spaghetti bolognese as I recall) before going straight to bed.

We were warned that headaches and shortness of breath were normal on the first day and night and should be expected. I consider myself to be reasonably fit, so dismissed this as a warning for the weak, but sure enough I had restless night. I woke up a number of times gasping for breath,  totally dehydrated and with a splitting headache! 

My reason for this trip was to drop off my son who was going to be doing a 2 week internship with CERS, but I also relished the opportunity to come out and visit a place so far off the beaten track.

As morning arrived, I opened my curtains to catch my first glimpse of our surroundings. I was not disappointed. By and large, a totally unspoilt landscape of an ancient village. The only mar on this impressive vista ... a massive new highway under construction. Chinese infrastructure development stretches even as far as this remotest locations.

I was accommodated in a simple but comfortable 2 storey cottage with a bedroom and bathroom downstairs and a desk and sitting area upstairs. The floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the trees, streams, pastures and wetlands below. Admiring the view and layout of this top floor, It was clear why this room was naming this “the writers room”. It was truly inspiring.

The living room of the Writers Room - inspiring!

Following breakfast that first day, I spent my time wandering aimlessly. Enjoying the nature and clean fresh air, but it was also an opportunity to clear my head and tackle some long pending projects. Free thinking time that I never seem to get in "the real world".

In this lightning fast paced life we all live, it can be certainly be sensible, even necessary, to stop, pause and look around once in a while.

As I left my son at CERS to get on with their professional exploring, I ventured out for the next 2 days on my own. Armed just with my camera, I wanted to try and capture just some of the wondrous surroundings I was witnessing. Perhaps a chance to capture it now, before it has a chance to develop too far. 

It was a thoroughly enjoyable, and productive, experience.

Thank you CERS and How Man.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Microsoft Surface 3 ... All things to all people ?

Microsoft has a knack of getting things right on their 3rd iteration.

Windows 3, Pocket PC and now the Surface 3!

I was a fan of the original Surface when it was launched. An excellent and innovative form factor with superb build quality, but the poor battery life and my fear of Windows 8 (at the time) kept me away from buying one (and many millions of others as well it appears, as Microsoft had to discount them heavily to clear their stocks).

I was braver when they launched the Surface 2. I opted for the Surface 2 RT as the battery life was improved to 10 hours and it was a significantly lighter machine than the “Pro”. I could mostly manage with the limitations of RT, but Microsoft dropped pen support on this model, and that was a frustration for me.

But fast forward less than 12 months and the announcement of the 3rd iteration of Surface a few weeks ago got me all excited. From the announced spec, they seemed to have nailed it!

Improving the already excellent form factor by making the kick stand more flexible, the full Windows version shed significant weight, gained the 10 hour battery and pen support was back … all this and an increased screen size to 12” made this a must have for me.

So the timing of my trip to Boston was perfect as it coincided with the launch date and I put myself on the waiting list.

3 weeks later and my impressions are all that I could have hoped for. This machine functions as a large tablet, a writing pad and a full size laptop all in one … as near as perfect as you can get.

The Holy Grail? People will knock this for 2 main reasons. First, because it is a Microsoft product, and its just “not cool” to have one of those, and the second will be the lack of apps.

As for the coolness of Microsoft … those sheep followers of Apple will ignore this at their own cost. Everything about this product beats the Macbook Air and the iPad, and this is ONE product. It’s also superior to the large Galaxy Note tablets, simply because of its sheer power and ability as a full fledged computer. Windows 8, with some practice is also an easy to use and versatile operating system (on a touch screen). While it is lacking in a number of entertainment apps that you will find on iOS and Android,  there are enough work and productivity solutions to do everything you need (and the fun stuff keeps coming online as well, albeit slowly).

The pen support on this device is a real treat. A well designed pen … something that looks and feels like a real world pen (Samsung, please note!) makes this device really usable as a writing pad in meetings. I hate taking notes on a keyboard. I find it somewhat impersonal when talking to someone and at the same time typing. Writing is, of course, so much more natural and in my previous life I would have pages and pages of my own handwritten notes, but no way to properly file them so I had them with me always (the best I managed was photographing them and putting them in Evernote, but this was a clunky solution).

Writing directly onto the screen (something the Galaxy Notes do very as well, albeit with a toothpick size pen) and having all your notes with you all the time, is a real boone! But that leads to my biggest criticism (and where the Samsung toothpick wins over). Microsoft has not figured out how to attach the pen to the Surface! There is a magnetic edge which can hold the pen, but its no way strong enough to manage even light travel. It’ll hold there neatly during a meeting, or within an office environment moving from room to room, but try throwing that in a bag and you will certainly lose the pen. And that’s linked to problem number 2, which is that there are no cases readily available for this lovely device. Credit where credit is due … no Apple device is launched today without a whole suite of accessories being available for it on day 1. A nice folio to hold my Surface 3 with a good pen holder would have been a treat, and without that, I am making do with a compromise solution and no secure place to put my pen (which means I have found myself in situations where I need to take notes, but cant!).

But I have to say, apart from this relatively minor (albeit frustrating) issues, this is an excellent product. I’m loving it my Surface 3. I’ve had the time to test it thoroughly in a wide host of situations and scenarios and It really does appear to be a single product that can be all things to all people.

Well done Microsoft!