Qercus reviewed but renewed?By Martin Hansen. Published: 27th Jul 2007, 00:12:40 | Permalink | Printable
Forty months after taking out an annual subscription, Martin Hansen ponders whether or not to continue his Qercus subMedia Watch Opinion - Issue number 283 of John Cartmell's RISC OS magazine Qercus landed on my doormat last week. Included was a reminder that my subscription was seriously overdue for renewal. I last subscribed at the end of 2003, which was when John launched his "fusion" of Acorn Publisher and Acorn User.
My one year's subscription for twelve issues has actually lasted three and a half years, and in that time I have received 15 issues - an average of one magazine every three months. Perhaps that's why the current issue is labelled "Summer 2007".
The large time lapses between issues have not bothered me. The RISC OS market is more of a relaxed enthusiasts corner than was previously the case and a magazine that turns up every once in a while, usually in the run up to a show, has suited me fine.
It has also meant that Drobe has been able to have good natured humour at John's expense. "Qercus back from the dead" was one mischievous headline following a long pause between consecutive issues. One no-show that lasted eight months prompted the gem, "Twenty things to get instead of a Qercus sub", and a suggestion that frustrated authors send their Qercus articles to Drobe for publication. Some authors, with copy that was starting to date, obliged.
The request that I renew my subscription prompted me to gather together the fifteen issues so that I could properly evaluate if I wanted to continue receiving the magazine. It occurred to me that many readers who initially subscribed at the same time as me will also be reflecting upon what they have received and be pondering if the magazine had proved itself worthy of further support and investment.
The magazine has been surprisingly consistent in its content over the years, which has revolved around the four main themes of art, programming, using various software packages plus software and hardware reviews. I decided to evaluate my collection under each of these headings in turn.
The art based features have included many unusual and interesting ideas on thinking creatively, and how to make posters, websites and artistic endeavours have a bit of individuality. Examples abound and I shall give only two examples for which I can quickly provide illustrations. In the summer 2006 issue, there is an amusing piece on manipulating text so that the way the words are written capture in some way what the words say - a simple example being "Drop Out", pictured below.
A couple of issues earlier there is a fascinating piece on designing so-called ambigrams. These are graphical figures that spell out a word both in the form presented and in another direction or orientation, an example being "Beatles", which when written as shown, has half turn rotational symmetry about its centre, pictured below.
Often, Draw or some other freely available application, such as InterGif in a recent piece on animation, is all you need to give the ideas presented a go. This idea of encouraging people to think more creatively with freely available software was the inspiration behind my Drobe article on making quick'n'easy banners. So, a gold star from me for the Qercus contribution to art under RISC OS.
The early issues feature series on BBC BASIC by Ray Favre, and WIMP programming using AppBasic by Joe Taylor. Both were competently written and well presented. I enjoyed reading about David Llewelyn-Jones' development of Compose: a programming language which allows a conceptual picture of a program to be turned into RISC OS executable code.
Writing interactive fiction using RISC OS is a topic that pops up now and again in the magazine but which I had written off as old hat. Last week, my nine year old daughter asked me to read her a Dr Who book at bedtime. At the end of each page she was given a choice of what the Doctor should do next. Flicking back and forth through a book, dependant upon her decisions, was good fun and convinced me that such fiction still has a market amongst a certain age-group with whom it is thriving. Qercus has, most recently, presented an excellent series of articles by Gavin Wraith on the programming language Lua. So, another gold star from me here. If John wants ideas for the future, I'd be most interested in some taster articles on Python, which people keep telling me to try, and PHP, which I believe the RISC OS server application WebJames can handle.
Locating all of my fifteen issues of Qercus proved to be harder than I had anticipated. I ended up ferreting around my poorly lit loft seeking the early issues. They are a dangerous thing: old magazines. As a young lad I struggled for years to bin my old Beezer and Beanos.
Many a time I tried, only to succumb to the temptation to have one last read through them. Moving to university finally saw me give the whole lot away to a thrilled eight year old boy, at the embarrassing age of 17.
So, when I told Helen, my partner, that I was just popping up into the attic for five minutes I knew that, time-wise, this was unlikely to be the case. Eventually I found the older issues in a box, unopened since I'd moved house a couple of years ago. A happy morning followed as, sitting amongst the cobwebs and with the rain pounding on the roof above, I looking over the inaugural offerings.
Using various software packages
Most of the the RISC OS classics have been featured, often one particular aspect of an application being focussed upon in depth with a specific objective being the goal of a tutorial-style presentation. ArtWorks, WebWonder, MusicScribe, EasiWriter, Composition, Photodesk, NetSurf and GrapeVine have all been given the once over. Crumbs, I'm giving away too many gold stars but I can't fault Qercus here, either.
Software and hardware reviews
Aah. At last. A section were the magazine, in my opinion, has not got things quite right. For a start, there seems to me, in John's editorials, a favourable bias towards the various projects from Stuart Tyrrell and the initiatives from RISC OS Ltd when compared with those, admittedly few and far between, from Castle.
As an Iyonix user, I find this irritating and silly, not least because there is so great a difference between what the two camps are offering that trying to simply say or imply that one is better than the other is not meaningful or useful. For example, a fair bit of ink states that the A9 is roughly comparable in speed to the Iyonix. To be honest, I don't really find Iyonix that much faster than the RiscPC for most tasks. If the machine is looking to see what key I've pressed 100 times a second or 1000 times a second as I word process, what does it matter?
RISC OS could certainly benefit from faster native hardware on which to run, and preferably in laptop form, but it needs to be very much faster. Dwelling upon small speed differences between the A9 and the Iyonix is daft. A review of the new features in the RISC OS 6 desktop applications, on the other hand, would be a much more interesting and positive way of promoting an area in which RISC OS 6 and the A9 have a lead. But then, perhaps, a review of how the two systems compare in terms of hardware support might balance what is being put forward. Bronze star here because of missed opportunities and a lack of a fair point of view.
The adverts in the magazine, over time are of some interest. Early on Castle feature strongly with whole page spreads on the Iyonix and Oregano 2. MicroDigital go for their final fling in an early issue (the third Qercus, May 2004) with a couple of full page spreads, one on the Alpha 5 notebook running VirtualRiscPC and the other on the "simply awesome" Omega. In recent issues Castle are absent whereas RISCOS Ltd have a full page promoting RISC OS 6 CJE has a double page selling the A9, and R-Comp have two full one-page ads.
With three gold stars and one bronze, I have just stopped prevaricating and phoned John to renew my subscription. I went for one of the current special offers which for £49.50 signed me in for twelve issues (including the three I've had while deciding to renew), and a free copy of Mike Williams' BASIC V programming book.
Now, I really must subscribe to that lovely Louie Smith's RISC OS Now for the odd month when Qercus has a pause.
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