In Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather, the Unseen University builds an analytical machine called Hex. Somewhere within Hex is an ant farm with a sticker on the side which says: “Anthill Inside” – an obvious joke to Intel’s old marketing campaign. Maybe Burleigh & Stronginthearm, dwarf crossbow makers to the nobility, might change direction and start making their own analytical machines and cut out all that magic crap that the wizards always muck around with.

In the real world, Apple is transitioning their Mac laptops and desktops away from the Intel/AMD x86_64 architecture to ARM64 after staying with Intel for 15 years. Prior to this, Apple was using IBM’s PowerPC processors – but IBM wasn’t able to take the PowerPC architecture any further on a performance per watt basis which meant that Apple was forced to look elsewhere.

We’ve reached a similar road – Intel hasn’t had it easy of late and with a variety of vulnerabilities and chip manufacturing issues which hasn’t seen much progress with shrinking their processor dies to the kind of level that is now possible with Apple’s chip design. With the huge success of the Apple-designed A-series processors used in the iPhone and iPad lines, it made sense to move the Mac to the same ARM64 architecture – using a System-On-a-Chip process to integrate the many different functions into a single package.

With the release of the M1, Apple is able to provide computers with longer and better battery life, better performance and provide cross-code compatibility with iPad and iOS applications. Intel Macs will eventually become a thing of the past. The future is ARM64.

Given that we’re still in lockdown, I’ve decided to claim back some tax from the HMRC to purchase computer equipment that will aid me in my duties at work. Last year that was a monitor and a new keyboard – this year it’s going to be an M1 MacBook Pro (for when we get back on the road again) and an M1 Mac Mini (for the home desktop). One of the major advantages of the new M1 processor is that the cost of these machines are at their lowest in years.

I’ve taken delivery of the 13″ M1 MacBook Pro yesterday – built with 8Gb RAM and 512Gb SSD. I factored that I won’t be using it heavily once I have the Mac Mini and it’ll just be used when I travel/go to work and need to test ARM64 specific stuff, or use it for on-call. The M1 Mac Mini will be specced out with 16Gb RAM and either 1Tb or 2Tb of storage – I’m still trying to decide, given there is a £400 difference.

Fish and Apple M1 Chip

The first thing to mention is that 8Gb RAM will result in a fair amount of page swapping if you’re using apps like Chrome (which is now Apple Silicon native), Evernote (still only Intel native at this time), and a few other things. But thanks to the speedy 512Gb SSD, any slowdown resulting from memory being dumped to and from disk isn’t too noticeable. On the other hand, the SSD will write many pages out to disk.

Coming from my 16″ MacBook Pro with Intel Core i9 processor and 32Gb RAM and 4Tb SSD, seeing page swaps is somewhat of a novelty. That said, even with swapping, the SSD in this unit should still outlast the actual unit itself, so I’m not unduly worried. Nevertheless, my suggestion for anybody considering buying one of these M1 units regardless of whether you choose the MacBook Air, Pro, or Mac Mini – go for 16Gb RAM if you can. I bought my MacBook Pro via Amazon, but alas, they don’t stock the 16Gb models.

You may find 8Gb RAM a bit limiting…

But is the M1 SoC as magical as they say it is? Yes – kind of. Overall performance, even with 8Gb RAM, is snappy. Applications open quickly and Chrome’s Javascript performance feels much, much more snappy than its Intel counterpart.

One of the most “magical” elements is Rosetta 2 – the translation layer that converts Intel x86_64 code to ARM64. It Just Works(tm) – at least 100% of the time for me. There is no truly noticeable performance hit – Spotify, Evernote and countless many other Mac apps that haven’t transitioned to Universal or Apple Silicon binaries run just fine. This is a far cry from the original Rosetta which ran PowerPC code on Intel. Boy, was THAT slow.

One of the biggest hurdles that I encountered wasn’t M1 related, but rather Big Sur – on the Intel MacBook Pro, Big Sur had trouble reading and adjusting the external display settings – often necessitating a plug/unplug job. This is when using USB-C (presumably DisplayPort over USB-C). With the M1 MacBook Pro, the problem was far worse. It recognised the BenQ display as being 5K (it can just about handle 4K) and got the resolution and refresh rate wrong regardless of whatever I did. It was only when I discovered I could press the Option key when clicking Scaled in System Preferences -> Display that I could see away of adjusting the display’s resolution AND refresh – yet using “low resolution” mode?

Big Sur’s USB-C/DisplayPort drivers are dodgy as hell on M1 – and just a PITA on Intel

I got fed up and decided to switch to HDMI instead – and that Just Worked(tm). I now have the right resolution and at the right refresh rate (144Hz) rather than a faux resolution 2560×1440 at 30Hz. Apple needs to do some serious work on its USB-C/DisplayPort display drivers.

FWIW, I just bought this wonderful Anker 8-in-1 dongle for all my dongle needs, given that the MacBook Pro only has two external ports. Comes with a nice carrying pouch too.

What’s really remarkable about the 13″ M1 MacBook Pro is that it is silent. Completely and totally silent. My 16″ MacBook Pro often sounds as if it’s about to take off. And the M1 MacBook Pro is cool to the touch regardless of whatever task I can throw at it. I could fry an egg on the 16″ model.

In terms of work, I’m pleased to say that the free version of the Forticlient VPN software (6.4.3) works with M1 Macs and Big Sur, even if it uses Rosetta 2 because it’s an Intel binary. In terms of anti-virus/anti-malware, I’m sitting tight until Sophos has something – while I suspect Sophos Home Premium should work (more or less) right now, I’d really like to see a native binary release ASAP.

And continuing with the work theme, I’ve got the Parallels Technical Preview running a Debian 10 for ARM VM – everything works just fine. So simple. Fast. No fuss whatsoever. I’m not going to try and run Windows for ARM on this machine – though I might give it a go when I get the Mac Mini.

VM running on Parallels for Intel Mac (note the bugs line – goodbye Spectre!):

[email protected] ~ % uname -a
Darwin Martyns-MBP.lan 20.3.0 Darwin Kernel Version 20.3.0: Thu Jan 21 00:07:06 PST 2021; root:xnu-7195.81.3~1/RELEASE_X86_64 x86_64

LINUX VM:
[email protected]:~$ cat /proc/cpuinfo
processor       : 0
vendor_id       : GenuineIntel
cpu family      : 6
model           : 158
model name      : Intel(R) Core(TM) i9-9880H CPU @ 2.30GHz
stepping        : 13
cpu MHz         : 2304.000
cache size      : 16384 KB
physical id     : 0
siblings        : 2
core id         : 0
cpu cores       : 2
apicid          : 0
initial apicid  : 0
fpu             : yes
fpu_exception   : yes
cpuid level     : 22
wp              : yes
flags           : fpu vme de pse tsc msr pae mce cx8 apic sep mtrr pge mca cmov pat pse36 clflush mmx fxsr sse sse2 ss ht syscall nx rdtscp lm constant_tsc nopl xtopology nonstop_tsc cpuid tsc_known_freq pni pclmulqdq ssse3 fma cx16 pcid sse4_1 sse4_2 x2apic movbe popcnt tsc_deadline_timer aes xsave avx f16c rdrand hypervisor lahf_lm abm 3dnowprefetch invpcid_single pti fsgsbase tsc_adjust bmi1 avx2 smep bmi2 invpcid rdseed adx smap clflushopt xsaveopt xsavec dtherm arat pln pts
bugs            : cpu_meltdown spectre_v1 spectre_v2 spec_store_bypass l1tf mds swapgs itlb_multihit srbds
bogomips        : 4608.00
clflush size    : 64
cache_alignment : 64
address sizes   : 36 bits physical, 48 bits virtual
power management:
[email protected] ~ % uname -a
Darwin Martyns-M1-MBP.lan 20.3.0 Darwin Kernel Version 20.3.0: Thu Jan 21 00:06:51 PST 2021; root:xnu-7195.81.3~1/RELEASE_ARM64_T8101 arm64

LINUX VM (2 virtual CPUs):
[email protected]:~/Projects$ cat /proc/cpuinfo
processor       : 0
BogoMIPS        : 48.00
Features        : fp asimd evtstrm aes pmull sha1 sha2 crc32 atomics fphp asimdhp cpuid asimdrdm jscvt fcma lrcpc dcpop sha3 asimddp sha512 asimdfhm dit uscat ilrcpc flagm ssbs
CPU implementer : 0x41
CPU architecture: 8
CPU variant     : 0x0
CPU part        : 0x000
CPU revision    : 0

processor       : 1
BogoMIPS        : 48.00
Features        : fp asimd evtstrm aes pmull sha1 sha2 crc32 atomics fphp asimdhp cpuid asimdrdm jscvt fcma lrcpc dcpop sha3 asimddp sha512 asimdfhm dit uscat ilrcpc flagm ssbs
CPU implementer : 0x41
CPU architecture: 8
CPU variant     : 0x0
CPU part        : 0x000
CPU revision    : 0

Overall I am very impressed with Apple’s first Apple Silicon Mac. It’s a little rough around the edges here and there, and we need to see more developers roll out Universal or native binaries, but otherwise this a laptop I can wholly recommend if you’re not going to be pushing it too hard. I still say that we need to see a bigger push towards 16Gb RAM models and add 32Gb RAM to the line-up – especially for developers.

I was mucking about with anti-virus/anti-malware on macOS Big Sur the other day which included testing various VPN products and ended up on BBC America’s web site whilst connected to a US server. There, for the taking, was the first episode of the controversial adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series of novels based on the Ankh Morpork City Watch in the form of a TV series, The Watch, which is yet to air here in the UK.

I wasn’t able to get past episode one, not because I didn’t enjoy it, but BBC America requires that you sign in with a US cable provider. As I’m not a merkin, I cannot do so. But what I did see within the confines of the first episode was rather interesting.

First things first, though. I was delighted. Over the moon. Cock-a-hoop. Fandabidozied.. when I was working at The Moving Picture Company and found out that we’d be working on the very first live-action TV series of a Terry Pratchett Discworld property. For me, out of all the projects MPC had worked on – this was the bee’s nuts, the mutt’s knees or other anatomical parts of animals that are really good. And I think we did extremely well with Vadim Jean’s adaptation (with bits of the screenplay mucked about by PTerry himself) of Hogfather and Colour of Magic. I also very much enjoyed Going Postal too. These adaptations were great fun and captured the spirit and look of Discworld and its inhabitants nicely.

Many, many years later and we’ve got a brand new TV adaptation based on the Watch of Ankh Morpork. But unlike the other adaptations, this one had a much more difficult birth which has resulted in a radically different kind of Ankh Morpork/Discworld – at least visually. A Discworld of an alternative dimension to that we all know and love. We have the same characters, but not entirely as we know them.

The first thing I will say about The Watch is that the actors – all of them – do a marvellous job. Top-notch stuff here. Richard Dormer in particular, as Sam Vimes, is bloody marvellous – even if he is not the Sam Vimes I’ve imagined over all these years reading the novels. I think the closest we’ve got in terms of characterisation is Constable Carrot (played by Adam Hugill) who plays him exactly as I’d imagine Carrot to be. Corporal Angua (Marama Corlett) is also fairly close too. And I can absolutely see the relationship forming between the two in this adaptation, just as it does in the books. But I am particularly impressed with the casting of Lady Sybil Ramkin (who will eventually become.. well, you’ll need to read the books) – Lara Rossi IS Lady Sybil. She’s an absolute delight. Good Boy, the dragon, makes me chuckle. Hopefully we’ll get to see a lot more of him in later episodes.

I didn’t recognise CMOTB (Cut Me Own Throat Dibbler) at first due to the gender-swapping recasting of both CMOTDB and Lord Vetinari. For me, CMOTD will always be an Arthur Daley type, surviving by the skin of his teeth through sausages inna bun or moving pictures – and not by selling the narcotic Slab. Dibbler couldn’t have been a drug dealer if he tried.

What’s interesting about this version of Discworld is that they too use practical effects for several main characters. Like Death in Hogfather, he’s a bloke wearing a big robe and a mask. In this version, it’s still a bloke in a robe, but we just see two blue lights. No skull. With an American accent. No, no, no, no. Bad. Wrong. Terrible. As for Sergeant Detritus, he actually looks pretty good as a practical creature – though at one point some of the prosthetics work fails somewhat and you see a bit more of the actor (Ralph Ineson) underneath than we should.

The VFX are pretty decent too and serve the show just fine.

Overall, and rather oddly, I rather like this weird parallel universe version of Discworld. I never thought I’d say that. It has many problems, yes, but its the performances which save this show, along with a healthy dose of humour. Or look at it this way: Game of Thrones season eight was an atrocious mess that should be confined to the vaults of Warner Bros. forever. This, The Watch, is a much better alternative. Is this our Discworld that we’ve come to know and love after all this time? No. Is this Batman who has become a news reporter in a yellow trenchcoat with a pet bat (as suggested by Neil Gaiman)? Maybe.

But good god it’s entertaining.

And as long as the momentum and insanity of episode one keeps up along with the rest of the series, I look forward to watching the whole of it whenever it comes to the UK shores.

Next, why I didn’t hate Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Cats… (honestly, I didn’t hate it, though he should never be allowed near VFX people ever again.)

Will peace come to the Galaxy? Stay tuned..

Disney+ a kinder, gentler Disney? Not likely.

Next month will be time to renew my Disney+ subscription, and I am in no way hesitant to renew it simply because of Star Wars. Not only do we have all the films in 4K, but we have The Clone Wars and Rebels animated series which help to expand the complex world-building of George Lucas’ playground. I’ve been enjoying the Clone Wars series very much, and Rebels builds upon that too. We end up with a series of stories which all end up being woven into the first six Star Wars movies, adding great value to them.

The Clone Wars and Rebels TV series being animated suggest that these are kids shows. While Rebels started with a lower age rating initially, the number of deaths featured in these shows put Game of Thrones to shame. Of course, unlike Game of Thrones, you don’t see people’s heads being pulled off, throats slit, or any number of interesting and amusing ways to die horribly. But nevertheless, this is Star Wars, not Star Peace. But I feel the level of violence generally falls in line with the original trilogy, though both shows introduce a lot more ethical related stories and conundrums. The main one being the clone troopers. The Republic army primarily consisted of genetically modified clones, all of whom had an organic biochip which would eventually turn the entire army against the Republic, killing the Jedi. But before all that happens, we spend a considerable amount of time with the clone troopers, getting to know them individually and as a group along with their Jedi generals. The relationships which get built up from that are important and essential. I would consider The Clone Wars and Rebels TV series an absolutely essential part of the Star Wars universe and are required viewing. I regret not watching them earlier, but I’m very glad I have done so now. Plus, the original voices of Darth Vader, Yoda and the actor behind Lando Calrissian all provide their original character voices for Rebels.

Within the past year, we’ve had TWO seasons of the first-ever live-action Star Wars TV series, with an entirely new Boba Fett series premiering at the end of this year. To say that The Mandalorian has been a tremendous success is an understatement. We’ve got so much more to come too. So, of course, I’m going to be renewing Disney+ for another year. Especially as we’re getting the Disney part of Hulu too – I’ve been waiting to see Justin Roiland’s Solar Opposites for a while, and it’s heading to Star on Disney+.

Yes, the price is going up, but I think the value for money versus the other streaming services is substantial.

The Competition

Though I rarely watch Netflix these days (because they keep cancelling my favourite shows), they still manage to keep the competition on their toes with shows like Bridgerton, The Dig (shot outside of Godalming), and the forthcoming adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, which, interestingly, is said to be filming around Guildford Cathedral right now. Oh, us Surreyonians (Surrey Onions?) can also boast that we’re hosting Netflix’s The Witcher series too. Surrey – we’re like Hollywood, but cheaper and nicer to look at.

(We did host Star Wars in Surrey a couple of times. One of those times I could have sworn I saw a Wookie riding atop a truck going up and down a certain runway of a certain popular BBC motoring show, seemingly practising for the train heist in Solo: A Star Wars Story.)

Many years ago, I came across a small local company producing online gift boxes that contained a wide variety of gifts based around various themes. The company name was Pamper Parcels. As Christmas was fast approaching, I wanted to get my stepmother a gift and this was the perfect solution as I’m not a natural shopper and despite knowing what my family likes and doesn’t like, I still struggle to buy anything suitable. So having somebody pack and present gifts nicely is a massive bonus in my view. My step mum was delighted with it.

Based on the feedback, when they produced a men’s pamper gift pack, I thought I’d give that a go. The box and packaging were excellent, and the contents were a perfect mix of edibles and smellies. Alas, Pamper Parcels doesn’t appear to be with us anymore, but while they were operating, they were a very good option for those looking for gifts.

That was 2014. Fast forward to 2020 and we’re in a pandemic. The company I now work for usually do something at Christmas time for us, but given that I and most of my fellow colleagues have been working from home for nearly a full year now, that wasn’t going to happen. So they kindly gave us all a very generous allowance to spend at Bookblock.com, another company that specialises in gift boxes, along with personalised stationery and cards.

I’m a big sucker for stationery, but I can barely read my own handwriting these days, so it’s wasted on me. But I’ve only just gotten around to picking and choosing my own gift box (Christmas was a busy time of the year, not much time to stop and think about things.)

I decided to stray from the curated boxes and go for some of the crafted beers and wines – along with a mug (you can never have enough mugs). The whole lot was paid for by my employers and the thing was delivered by DPD in under 24 hours.

I look forward to celebrating Christmas 2: Electric Boogaloo over the next few weeks – when I’m not on-call. I’m certainly very impressed with Bookblock’s presentation and speedy turnaround. And I’ve bookmarked them as I’m sure I’ll use them again in the future – either for family, friends, or myself again.