• Alan Martin

Windows Ten(t)

Note: This post originally appeared on The Inquirer, which heartbreakingly closed in December 2019, losing a huge amount of my best work in the process. Given it's all been scrubbed from the internet - aside from on the all-seeing eye of the Way Back Machine - there doesn't seem much harm in reposting this feature here for posterity.

THIS ISN’T A COLUMN I ever planned on writing. I’ve never had the grand dream of making my computer look like a ski lodge. And yet, here I am writing it, because my laptop now has more of a rustic vibe to it than any technology should have in 2019.

My Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 is now covered in wood paneling. And y’know what? I like it. Maybe this is the first step on a journey that ends with me moving to a cabin decked out with a bear skin rug and hunting trophies. If that happens you have permission to track me down and kill me. Seriously: use this post as mitigation if it goes to trial. You have my blessing.

Anyway, that’s the destination – the wooden laptop, not my eventual murder. How did I get there?

The Surface Laptop in happier times. The proximity of the world's most underwhelming Eggs Benedict was an early warning sign, to be fair.

I blame Microsoft. And Plex. Microsoft, Plex and a curry sauce, in that order. Every ingredient in this sad story, except me, naturally. It doesn’t take a genius to join the dots between these, but I’ll spell it out for you anyway. Curry sauce has a tendency to spit when heated, and the Surface has a beautiful, but wholly impractical, alcantara cover.

I can’t stay mad at the curry – it was a solid example of the paneer korma genre – but it left some unsightly yellow dots across the fabric, like my Surface laptop was cosplaying as Spotty Man from SuperTed, but got the detail slightly wrong.

If you ever find yourself in this situation, don’t do what I did next: don’t try and scrub it out with soap and water, as you’ll replace that faint yellow dotting with a horrible brown patch instead.

The kind of brown patch that will have your colleagues wondering if freelance life is treating you so badly that you can't afford to wash your hands any more.

Microsoft would tell you that Surface care is easy for even the dirtiest of grubster. The official guidance is to clean the Alcantara "with a mild soap and water solution" within 30 minutes to "prevent any stains from setting." Fair enough, I didn't notice the dotting for a day, but the number of people with stained Surfaces on Reddit suggests I'm not the only person to find the computer not hugely practical for cleaning. I tried some fancy Alcantara cleaning products aimed at luxury car interiors. I tried diluted bleach. I tried nail polish remover. Nada.

You would have thought that Microsoft would see this coming and make the fabric easy to replace. They don't. In fact, iFixIt gave the Surface Laptop and its sequel an impressively bad 0/10 for repairability, calling it a "glue-filled monstrosity" that "literally can't be opened without destroying it."

So what's a little more glue? I began to research Surface Laptop covers, because using it in public was beginning to make me sad, as I imagined everyone nearby judging by gross palms. But the curse of Alcantara is just beginning: most places I found that sold covers would only cover up the top and bottom of the laptop, presumably because fabric repels adhesive.

Step forward the geniuses at ToastMade: a company that sprung into life via Kickstarter, narrowly clearing its target by just $368 in 2012. After some searching, it became clear that the company would bury my curry stain beneath a thin veneer of wood, and I got in touch.

The business specialises in wood and leather covers for devices. Actual wood, cut ridiculously thin, so as not to add extra heft. Despite this, its environmental credentials are pretty solid, running on 100 per cent renewable energy, and only using "responsibly grown, rainforest friendly wood and bamboo." Obviously shipping a laptop cover from Oregon to Mitcham isn't a great boon for the planet, but that's on me, not Toast.

A couple of weeks after making contact, my cover arrived, and I set to work affixing it, piece by piece, to the sullied Surface. It came in 10 pieces to cover almost every bit of exposed metal. The curved corner pieces are notched, so they bend easily without looking too angular.

Each piece has been laser cut to exactly fit the laptop or phone you order for, so there's no risk of getting things wrong. As somebody who has never, ever put on a screen protector without an unsightly bubble ruining my day, the Toast process was pretty painless. I only lined up one piece slightly incorrectly - the lid - and it exposes a tiny bit of metal at the back. But considering the metal grill behind it needs to be open anyway, it's hardly the end of the world.

It was all done within about 20 minutes, and despite my initial doubts, I really like it. So have most others who have seen it. Not everyone though:

Maybe public reactions are best saved for another day, but I can tell you one thing: I'd rather be judged as a hipster wazzock than somebody who doesn't understand why they put soap next to sinks.

Though I guess the two aren't mutually exclusive, if history repeats itself. No more Surface Laptop in the kitchen. µ

  • Alan Martin

My friend Duncan does an email newsletter called “Beginnings”. It’s about starting new things, and his most recent one was about his experience learning to run at the age of 35.

I can empathise with this, because I made the same journey myself at the age of 28. I did this as someone who found himself newly single and inclined to make the best possible impression on London’s largely apathetic dating scene. I wasn’t very good at it (running, rather than dating, though if the glove fits…) but with daily jogs and a tightly-controlled diet I lost three stone in three months, so I must have been doing something right.

As my life has evened out again, more of that weight than I would like has returned, but the running has stuck with me. I’m a regular at parkrun, where I have – at the time of writing – completed 181 events since 2014. Each course is measured to be 5km, which means I’ve covered 905km, or around 562 miles on race days, which obviously doesn’t include the time spent training or doing non-parkrun events. In that time, I’ve also run four 10k races, for example.

At this point, I want to make two things very clear:

1) I’m not very good. My mean average for a 5k is probably around 26:30, though after a couple of month’s heavy training I did hit a golden era of sub-25-minute times, with a PB of 24:11.

2) I still don’t really like running very much. It’s uncomfortable and frequently demoralising – especially in summer.

But I keep doing it, and for that I have to thank parkrun: a series of free, timed 5k races every Saturday morning around the world. And for parkrun, I have writing to thank.

Back in 2013, I was writing news and editing long-form content for the hiking and running shoe brand Merrell. Every day I was editing articles written by incredible human beings running ultramarathons and engaging in other superhuman feats. It was impressive, but alienating: I wanted to read about people like me – the kind of people for whom lacing up and not giving up half way around was half the battle. So I pitched just that as a weekly column and got it.

The site is no longer live, so I can’t link to it, but as I write all my stuff on Google Docs, I have all of the copy saved. It begins like this:

“If the incredible men and women writing about their feats of endurance are rightly called Merrell Alphas, I’m a Merrell Gamma at best. In fact, me writing about running is a bit like a goldfish penning a column on castles: sure, he may have seen a replica of one in his bowl, but he’s probably still not best placed to write a piece about Neuschwanstein.”

...and so it continued. But I needed material for a weekly piece, so I decided training for a race would be the perfect thing. I did Couch to 5K training and eventually made my debut at Wimbledon parkrun on November 1 2014 with a not unrespectable time of 26:21.

Anyway, inspired by Duncan’s lovely email, I thought I’d offer my own tips for newbie runners, based on my seven-year journey to becoming a mediocre runner.

You’re not as fast as you think you are

This sounds a bit patronising, but it’s not meant to be. People starting out tend to go too fast, and then beat themselves up when they inevitably have to stop two minutes later. Drop your pace. Then drop it again. Endurance first, speed later.

Get the right shoes

I get why people may not want to drop £70-£120 on a pair of running shoes when the hobby may not last the week, but running in cheap trainers almost guarantees you’ll have a dreadful time and sore knees.

Ideally, you’ll get your gait assessed too: turns out I run slightly inwards, so needed shoes with banking on the sides so my knees wouldn’t hurt. I found this out in the Asics Store in London by running on a treadmill for 30 seconds while the shop assistant watched. (I had to sign a piece of paper saying it was my fault if I died during said test. If that were a risk, it’s probably safe to assume I’d have had bigger problems than the suitability of footwear to contend with.)

Distractions are important

Some of my running friends refuse to use headphones. I personally think they’re essential because running is a so damned boring. For shorter runs, music is good for maintaining a beat, but for longer advenrtures where you’re taking a slower pace and it’s more about dogged endurance, then podcasts or audiobooks make a great distraction.

Perseverence is key

Nobody is brilliant right away, and that's demoralising. If you can only run for a minute without stopping on day one, don’t give up! Try Couch to 5K, which gradually builds you up to running 5km without stopping via managed runs and walks.

Anybody can run 5K, and that’s not just a soundbite: I genuinely believe it to be true. It just requires patience, commitment to training and the strength of character not to give up on it when you hit demoralising obstacles.

If I can do it, anybody can.

  • Alan Martin

And the first of many, hopefully. Tens, maybe even dozens, who knows?

Yep, today I pressed that little button on the Wix site labeled "add blog". Partly because after a year of freelancing I felt the site needed some extra content, and partly because it would be nice to have somewhere to put thoughts that people won't pay me for. Or, uh, something more flattering.

But yes, I have officially been freelance for one year as of July 6, and I have to say I'd have a very hard time going back to full-time office life now, though I very much appreciate the one day a week I spend in the Dennis Publishing offices. Nice as my two cats are, they make for pretty poor colleagues.

Anyway, this is actually just a test post to see where the blog sits on the site, so move along: nothing to see here. And this won't be representitive of the kind of content you'll see here in future, honest.

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