Surface Pro 3 Revisited

It’s a bit of an experiment today. I am posting this using the Open Source version of Microsoft’s now unsupported but much loved Windows Live Writer. This is an experimental version but  it seems stable so I’m going to give it a try. The other part of the experiment is that I’m going to look back at a product I have already reviewed and see how I feel about it after putting it to use over a fair length of time.

In late 2014 I bought a Surface Pro 3. It was the basic model with an i3 processor, 4 Gb of RAM and a 64 Gb SSD. I was happy with it when I bought it, but how do I feel about it now?

Microsoft bills this as the tablet that can replace your laptop and I actually put this to the test. For about 5 months I used the Surface Pro as my primary work laptop. I was dithering about whether to buy a MacBook Pro and waiting to see if a new model would come out so I took to working on the SP3 rather than my aging and somewhat damaged MacBook Air.

The Surface served me well during that time. I got my work done and it travelled everywhere with me, during a couple of long family visits to Scotland, a short trip to Blizzard in Irvine and to the London Book Fair.

When I was in the coworking space I used a Dell 23 Professional monitor and a Microsoft Keyboard with a Logitech mouse. This setup is perfect for use with the Surface Pro because the monitor contains a 4 port USB hub. I just left the keyboard and mouse plugged in to the monitor and hooked the Surface up when I came into the office. It worked like a charm. I have a similar setup at home. I didn’t need the docking station although Microsoft will sell you a very nice one if you do.

The Surface Pro was a real pleasure to use on the go. With keyboard cover attached it weighs just over a kilo and it travels easily and well. The power adaptor is superlight and lets you charge the Surface and your phone at the same time, thus ridding you of the need to carry a phone charger. It’s a very elegant solution. Without the keyboard cover the Surface weighs about as much as the original iPad and it makes a good if somewhat hefty tablet.

The machine has enough power for email, Netflix and office applications and the battery life is excellent. There was never a time when I was too far away from a power socket for too long. People were usually impressed when I whipped it out and started taking notes with a pen as well. It has that wow factor.

So why did I eventually go back to using a MacBook Pro as my main machine?

There are several reasons– the first was my own cheapness. I originally bought the cheapest, lowest end model of the Surface Pro I could get in an airport duty free shop. This was  my undoing. 64 Gb is just not enough for a main machine and an i3 processor is a bit underpowered for gaming, speech recognition and the other high end things I sometimes do on a computer. To be fair, Dragon Naturally Speaking worked very well, but it takes at least twice as long to transcribe speech as the MacBook Pro does. This can mount up over time.

The second reason is that the trackpad is (as I observed in my original review) crap. Because of the touch screen you don’t often have to use it but when you do, watch out. The keyboard cover in the SP4 is supposed to fix this and its backward compatible with the SP3 so I may test this yet.

The third reason is that the software is not quite there yet. Don’t get me wrong– anything by Microsoft works very well with the Surface Pro but I had problems with Scrivener and a number of other apps on the extremely high resolution screen. For some reason they just don’t scale up very well. Text can be almost unreadable sometimes. Doubtless this will all be fixed over time as more Windows developers get used to ultra high res screens, but it’s not there just yet.

Another aspect of the software problem is that there is just some software on the Mac side that I am not ready to part with yet. Most noticeably Scrivener (the OSX version is better) but also Vellum (which I will get around to reviewing soon.)

I still use the Surface a lot, in particular for PDF reading and Pen Editing PDFs in Drawboard. It is a superb replacement for printouts when you are proof-reading.

Would I recommend the Surface Pro 3? Yes, pretty much unreservedly. It does what it says on the tin and it is a beautiful piece of hardware. If you mostly use MS Office you really can’t go wrong with it. Even Scrivener is pretty usable in laptop mode if you alter the font settings yourself—it’s a slightly tedious process but it works.

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Father’s Day on the Assassin’s Road

Quite by coincidence I celebrated Father’s Day by reading the new Dark Horse Lone Wolf and Cub Omnibus. This concerns the adventures of a man even less likely to win the Father of the Year Award than Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones. Ogami Itto travels Tokugawa Shogunate Japan pursuing his career as an unstoppable assassin. A man capable of slaughtering squads of highly trained ninja, scores of bandits and small armies of Ronin with his trusty dotanuki battle-blade, what makes his feats of butchery even more impressive is that he often performs them while pushing the pram containing his infant son, Daigoro. Ogami is the Lone Wolf of the title, Daigoro is the cub.

If the basic premise of a pram-pushing, sword-wielding super-assassin sounds ludicrous, I can assure you the manga takes it completely seriously. And by the time you’ve finished reading it, you probably will too.

First let’s get the negatives out of the way. This is a disturbing read in the way that manga can often be. Particularly in the early episodes the author, Kazuo Koike, seems devoted to shocking you with just how brutal and ruthless our hero can be, as he performs ever more reckless feats of child endangerment in his quest to get his quota of killings done. Itto is a man perfectly willing to toss his own toddler into the river as part of a trap for his intended victim. The passing ronin strips himself of his weapons and dives in to save the drowning child. Ogami Itto stabs him as he swims. It’s not exactly the stuff of heroic fantasy.

I confess I found some of the schemes the Lone Wolf uses, the ones that supposedly demonstrate what a brilliant and ruthless tactician he is, just a bit silly when I paused to think about them. Invariably I found myself wondering what this wandering ronin did with all the piles of money he collected from the people who used their life savings to hire his services as an infallible killer. And I was often puzzled as to what all this endless wandering around slaughtering people in a mercenary fashion had to do with our hero’s supposed quest for vengeance on the people who dishonoured him and killed his family. The series storyline is not without its flaws.

In the end though none of this mattered to me because, quite simply, Lone Wolf and Cub is awesome. In part, it’s the artwork, which is astonishing. It is not at all reminiscent of the pretty cartoonishness of a lot of modern manga. It has the darkness of the British comic books of my 1960’s youth, combined with an awesome dynamism in the storytelling that apparently heavily influenced a young Frank Miller. The landscapes and settings are often super-realistic and this is sometimes achieved with the simplest of techniques. In some of the stories the effects of walking through a snowstorm are achieved by the use of stippling. It seems so simple but by God, it works.

And Goseki Kojima, the artist, knows beyond any doubt how to tell a story. I forget which Hollywood director said that in a good movie you should be able to completely understand what is going on without the soundtrack. Kojima knows how to do this. Page sometimes follows page in Lone Wolf and Cub with neither sound effect nor dialogue and the story is conveyed to the reader by the art alone.

In part the strength of Lone Wolf and Cub comes from the atmosphere. Ogami Itto and his son are on meifumado, the road to hell and the reader is left in no doubt that this is the case. They wander through a film noir world of darkness and corruption where law and order is breaking down and society is crumbling. The book transported me back to a different time, not just Shogunate Japan (of which it is a realistic depiction according to people better qualified than me to say), but the 1970’s when it was written. It has all the bleak nihilism of the movies and books of that period, of spaghetti Westerns, clockwork oranges and men with no names.

At first reading I thought I detected spaghetti western influence in the storytelling style, then I remembered that Leone lifted scenes from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo movies shot for shot. In any case, it does not matter, we’re moving through a dark world where an honest man can be forced to become an assassin and reap a red harvest.

The small touches impress, and the quiet moments. Despite his willingness to sacrifice his son’s life along with his own, you are left in no doubt that there is a bond between Itto and Daigoru. And there are times when the child’s innocent view of the world he is being carried through is transmitted with a full-on sense of wonder. And even in this venal world there is moral complexity— men hire Itto to kill their friends out of political necessity and regret it all the while. Living Buddhas understand how their example is used to keep the peasantry docile. And Itto himself lives by his own code even as he abuses the honour of the people around him and the mores of his society to achieve his lethal ends.

I first read Lone Wolf and Cub many years ago in one of the small compilations of the stories. It was The Flute of the Fallen Tiger I think. I always wanted to read more. I am grateful to Dark Horse for giving me a chance to read the stories from beginning to end and in a format more suited to my ageing eyes.

Nice Review of Stealer of Flesh

There’s a very nice review of Stealer of Flesh here by someone who clearly understood what I was attempting. It’s attached to a short essay about the structure of fantasy novels which is worth your consideration as well.

Elric Among the Nazis

Last year Gollancz announced it was going to be making all of Michael Moorcock’s genre work available both in print and in ebook form. It was exciting news for me. Moorcock was my gateway drug to genre fantasy more than 40 years ago. I own most of his stuff in paperback but the books are scattered hither and yon about the world and quite frankly you can’t beat ebooks for convenience, particularly when you’re a long term expat like me.

Recently the first books in the new Michael Moorcock Library rolled off the digital presses (or whatever) and I was delighted to note a completely new (to me) cycle of Elric tales called the Moonbeam Roads. Turns out they were not quite new– Daughter of Dreams looks like it’s a retitled version of the The Dreamthief’s Daughter but that was OK by me. I never got a chance to read it when it first came out because it was not released in the UK. As a bonus the new version comes with an introduction from both John Clute and Mr Moorcock himself. How could I resist?

Anyway, off to Amazon I go, and download the book and into the prose I leap. It’s in first person, which is unusual for an Elric book, and that first person is not Elric, nor is the setting The Young Kingdoms. The narrator is Ulric Von Bek, descendant of that Von Bek who told the tale of The Warhound and the World’s Pain and the setting is our own dear earth sometime between the World Wars. I am not too bothered because I am familiar with Moorcock’s Eternal Champion mythology and the way his multiversal mythos all interlinks and hey, I like the man’s prose.

The story starts with a shuffling slowness but is nonetheless engrossing. We meet Von Bek’s cousin, Gaynor, another name familiar to people who sail around the multiverse on a regular basis. Gaynor is one of Moorcock’s more entertaining recurring villains. In this particular volume he is working for the Nazis, and in search of both the Holy Grail and the Black Sword. Von Bek’s family as it turns out are guardians of the Grail and as it happens our hero is in possession of a black sword that bears more than a passing resemblance to Stormbringer. Soon Von Bek is having visions of white hares, other worlds and an albino who looks not unlike a certain proud prince of ruins. He’s abducted by Nazis, thrown into a concentration camp, and finally escapes Gaynor’s clutches with the aid of a couple of otherworldly travellers. We’re about a third of the way through the book now though and still no Elric. I am starting to feel a little mis-sold.

Still we’re also running through the Mittel Marches, the fantasy worlds that intersect with our own in the multiverse, being pursued by Nazis through a strange tunnel world occupied by one of those idealised philosopher races Mr Moorcock likes so much. I’m not unhappy with the book so much as confused by the non-arrival of the putative star. It’s all a bit like that Steven Seagal/Kurt Russell movie where Mr Seagal gets killed in the opening fifteen minutes and you spend the rest of the movie wondering whether he’s going to reappear because his name is above the credits. (Spoiler alert: he doesn’t. Incidentally it’s my favourite Steven Seagal movie.)

After some more adventures, Elric finally manifests himself by taking possession of Von Bek’s body and we have two facets of the Eternal Champion for the price of one. We also have Elric’s alien consciousness mediated by the human, first person voice of Von Bek, which is a first as far as I can recall.

The plot kicks into gear and I am sure long term Moorcock readers will be unsurprised to learn that Tanelorn is under threat, this time by Miggea, the mad duchess of Law. It’s all part of the same vast universal conflict that the struggle with the Nazis is in our world. There’s much toing and froing, chasing after Gaynor and being chased by him. There’s dragons, there’s colossal world-shaking feats of sorcery and there’s sword fights. There’s a confrontation between Elric and the leaders of the Nazi party. I don’t want to say too much else for fear of spoilers. Oh OK then– here’s one– the Nazis don’t win.

You’ve probably noticed a supercilious tone to this review. I’m not exactly sure where it’s coming from. I enjoyed Daughter of Dreams greatly. The set-pieces, like the dragon flight over Europe, are great. And Elric when he finally arrives is as full of star quality as ever. The writing is very, very good indeed.

And yet, I was left partially unsatisfied or at least uneasy. Part of it is that in places the first person narration slows things down without saying anything particularly interesting. It becomes an excuse for Von Bek to philosophise about Nazism and the banality of evil. Part of it I think is that setting Elric among the Nazis feels a bit blasphemous. Conflating concentration camps and cosmic sorcery leaves me uneasy.

It’s the sort of transgressive thing that many people love but the truth is Daughter of Dreams is a romp, and a romp through the ruins of Auschwitz seems to me a very odd thing. Moorcock does some very nice things with the imagery, including commenting on its influence on his own fiction, but in the end of the mixture of real world horrors with heavy metal, sword and sorcery imagery did not quite gel, for me at least.

As always though Moorcock is never less than interesting and the best bits of the book are very good indeed. It’s not my favourite Elric book but it is a good one.