Look after yourself, look after your mind

Last Tuesday was World Mental Health Day – a day aimed at raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilising efforts in support of mental health. 2017’s theme was mental health in the workplace.

The thing about mental health issues is that most people don’t understand – until we experience problems ourselves – and then we realise just how common those issues are. That’s why days like World Mental Health Day are so important.

I had my first “episode” back in 2007, when I let work-related stress build to a point where I was diagnosed with anxiety. It took a few weeks off and a change of job role to set me straight.

But stress-related anxiety is not something that one “gets better” from (at least not in my experience). Instead, I’ve learned to spot the signs and to take action. I’ve begun to recognise when I’m heading in the wrong direction because I’m agitated with colleagues or customers over apparently trivial things. My work isn’t going to get less stressful, so I’ve put coping strategies in place: I exercise; I try to take a break most days (even if it’s just a short walk, although I really must stop combining the short walk with confectionary purchases…); I blog (I find the writing cathartic).

Hopefully no-one notices. It doesn’t affect my ability to do my job (unless my job has unreasonable expectations) and a good manager (or team member) will recognise when someone is struggling.

So it’s ironic that, in the week of World Mental Health Day, I found myself finishing the week with a tweet about working late on a Friday again (which I probably should never have sent). And when I finally stopped for the weekend I realised why I was in the state I was in: I hadn’t managed to get to any of my “Caveman Conditioning” (circuit training) sessions; I travelled in evenings to be in the right location for the next day’s work and avoid an early start; I ate crap food; I didn’t get enough sleep (Premier Inn beds may be comfortable but a hotel is still not home); I hadn’t blogged in ages; and I’d had a cold all week.

This week has had less travel but still a lot of pressure. But I’m starting to wonder how much of that pressure is perceived. How much stress do I add by insisting that things are done to a particular standard? And really, does it have to be me? Do I have to say “yes” to every request?

I have deliverables to produce by the end of this week so, yesterday, I set Skype for Business to Do Not Disturb, closed Outlook and got my head down. My productivity soared. Stuff happened without me. The world did not end. Unfortunately, I checked email at lunchtime and fell into a pit of despair but, after responding to some messages, I closed it again and cracked on as best I could with the document I need to write. I wrote some more. I felt (a bit) better.

I won’t pretend that I’m not looking forward to a week off work next week. Even if most of my half-term plans revolve around a huge clear-out and getting on top of my home admin. That will be another set of tasks off my list, off my mind.

I posted another tweet this week – much more positive than last Friday’s whinge:

I was amazed how many liked and retweets it got: that’s a lot of people who recognise the situation. I’m not sure that the person who took the time to say “thank you” yesterday realised the positive impact they made but the little things really do help.

Further Reading

Some tips from my first few weeks with a GoPro Hero action camera

I’ve been interested in having a play with an action camera for a while now. I figure I can get some fun footage on the bikes, as well as ski-ing next winter, and I missed not having a waterproof camera when I was lake-swimming in Switzerland a few weeks ago!

So, when I saw that a contact who had upgraded to the Hero 5 was selling his GoPro Hero 3 Silver Edition, I jumped at the opportunity.

My camera came to me with quite a few accessories and I picked up some more for not too much money at HobbyKing (shipped from China in 3 weeks – don’t pay GoPro prices for things like a tripod mount or a lens cover!).

Whilst getting used to the camera’s controls (oh yes, and opening the waterproof case for the first time), I came across some useful tips on the ‘net… including loads of videos from a guy called Bryn, whose new users guide was useful to make sure I had everything set up as I needed:

Once I had everything set up and a fast 64GB card installed, My first outing on a bike with the GoPro was helmet-mounted. That was OK, but it’s a bit weird having all that weight on your head and also not too handy for working out if the camera is running or not. Since then, I’ve got a bike mount so when my GoPro is mounted on my bike, I have it below the stem, which means technically it’s upside-down:

No worries – the Internet delivered another video telling me how to set the camera up for upside down recording:

One thing to watch out for is the battery life – don’t expect to be filling your memory card on a single battery – but it should last a while. It’s just that a GoPro isn’t going to work as a DashCam or similar (there are actually some good articles on the ‘net as to why you would probably want to use a specialist dashcam anyway – I have a NextBase 402G for that). Anyway, I don’t want to have to edit hours of footage so knowing I can only record a few minutes at a time is good for me (I have hours of recordings on MiniDV digital tape that have been waiting to be transferred to disk for years!).

I did recently use the GoPro to record some presentations at work: great for a wide angle view – but it got pretty warm being plugged into a power source the whole time (so again, a proper video camera would be the right thing to use – and don’t think about using a DSLR or a compact camera – I tried that too and they generally switch off after 20-30 mins to prevent overheating). One thing I found is that each video recorded on the GoPro is chopped into chunks of around 3.55MB (I was recording 1080p). The file naming is worth getting used to.

Each video uses the same number (0001, 0002, etc.) but you’ll find that the first one is named GOPR0001.MP4, the next is GP010001.MP4, then GP020001.MP4, etc. So, when selecting a group of files that relate to the same recording, look carefully at the index numbers (the date and time stamp should help too).

Also, depending on how you import the videos (i.e. copying directly rather than using an application like MacOS Image Capture), you may see some .THM and .LRV files. The GoPro support site explains that these are thumbnail and low-resolution video files respectively.

So, that’s a few things I’ve discovered over the last few weeks and just a little bit of GoPro tinkering. Please leave a comment if you’ve anything more to add!

Seven technology trends to watch 2017-2020

Just over a week ago, risual held its bi-annual summit at the risual HQ in Stafford – the whole company back in the office for a day of learning with a new format: a mini-conference called risual:NXT.

I was given the task of running the technical track – with 6 speakers presenting on a variety of topics covering all of our technical practices: Cloud Infrastructure; Dynamics; Data Platform; Unified Intelligent Communications and Messaging; Business Productivity; and DevOps – but I was also privileged to be asked to present a keynote session on technology trends. Unfortunately, my 35-40 minutes of content had to be squeezed into 22 minutes… so this blog post summarises some of the points I wanted to get across but really didn’t have the time.

1. The cloud was the future once

For all but a very small number of organisations, not using the cloud means falling behind. Customers may argue that they can’t use cloud service because of regulatory or other reasons but that’s rarely the case – even the UK Police have recently been given the green light (the blue light?) to store information in Microsoft’s UK data centres.

Don’t get me wrong – hybrid cloud is more than tactical. It will remain part of the landscape for a while to come… that’s why Microsoft now has Azure Stack to provide a means for customers to run a true private cloud that looks and works like Azure in their own datacentres.

Thankfully, there are fewer and fewer CIOs who don’t see the cloud forming part of their landscape – even if it’s just commodity services like email in Office 365. But we need to think beyond lifting and shifting virtual machines to IaaS and running email in Office 365.

Organisations need to transform their cloud operations because that’s where the benefits are – embrace the productivity tools in Office 365 (no longer just cloud versions of Exchange/Lync/SharePoint but a full collaboration stack) and look to build new solutions around advanced workloads in Azure. Microsoft is way ahead in the PaaS space – machine learning (ML), advanced analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT) – there are so many scenarios for exploiting cloud services that simply wouldn’t be possible on-premises without massive investment.

And for those who still think they can compete with the scale that Microsoft (Amazon and Google) operate at, this video might provide some food for thought…

(and for a similar video from a security perspective…)

2. Data: the fuel of the future

I hate referring to data as “the new oil”. Oil is a finite resource. Data is anything but finite! It is a fuel though…

Data is what provides an economic advantage – there are businesses without data and those with. Data is the business currency of the future. Think about it: Facebook and Google are entirely based on data that’s freely given up by users (remember, if you’re not paying for a service – you are the service). Amazon wouldn’t be where it is without data.

So, thinking about what we do with that data: the 1st wave of the Internet was about connecting computers, 2nd was about people, the 3rd is devices.

Despite what you might read, IoT is not about connected kettles/fridges. It’s not even really about home automation with smart lightbulbs, thermostats and door locks. It’s about gathering information from billions of sensors out there. Then, we take that data and use it to make intelligent decisions and apply them in the real world. Artificial intelligence and machine learning feed on data – they are ying and yang to each other. We use data to train algorithms, then we use the algorithms to process more data.

The Microsoft Data Platform is about analytics and data driving a new wave of insights and opening up possibilities for new ways of working.

James Watt’s 18th Century steam engine led to an industrial revolution. The intelligent cloud is today’s version – moving us to the intelligence revolution.

3 Blockchain

Bitcoin is just one implementation of something known as the Blockchain. In this case as a digital currency.

But Blockchain is not just for monetary transactions – it’s more than that. It can be used for anything transactional. Blockchain is about a distributed ledger. Effectively, it allows parties to trust one another without knowing each other. The ledger is a record of every transaction, signed and tamper-proof.

The magic about Blockchain is that as the chain gets longer so does the entropy and the encryption level – effectively, the more the chain is used, the more secure it gets. That means infinite integrity.

(Read more in Jamie Skella’s “A blockchain explaination your parents could understand”.)

Blockchain is seen as strategic by Microsoft and by the UK government and it’s early days but we will see where people want to talk about integrity and data resilience with integrity. Databases – anything transactional – can be signed with blockchain.

A group of livestock farmers in Arkansas is using blockchain technology so customers can tell where their dinner comes from. They are applying blockchain technology to trace products from ‘farm to fork’ aiming to provide consumers with information about the origin and quality of the meat they buy.

Blockchain is finding new applications in the enterprise and Microsoft has announced the CoCo Framework to improve performance, confidentiality and governance characteristics of enterprise blockchain networks (read more in Simon Bisson’s article for InfoWorld). There’s also Blockchain as a service (in Azure) – and you can find more about Microsoft’s plans by reading up on “Project Bletchley”.

(BTW, Bletchley is a town in Buckinghamshire that’s now absorbed into Milton Keynes. Bletchley Park was the primary location of the UK Government’s wartime code-cracking efforts that are said to have shortened WW2 by around 2 years. Not a bad name for a cryptographic technology, hey?)

4 Into the third dimension

So we’ve had the ability to “print” in 3 dimensions for a while but now 3D is going further.Now we’re taking physical worlds into the virtual world and augmenting with information.

Microsoft doesn’t like the term augmented reality (because it’s being used for silly faces on photos) and they have coined the term mixed reality to describe taking untethered computing devices and creating a seamless overlap between physical and virtual worlds.

To make use of this we need to be able to scan and render 3D images, then move them into a virtual world. 3D is built into next Windows 10 release (the Fall Creators update, due on 17 October 2017). This will bring Paint 3D, a 3D Gallery, View 3D for our phones – so we can scan any object and import to a virtual world. With the adoption rates of new Windows 10 releases then that puts 3D on a market of millions of PCs.

This Christmas will see lots of consumer headsets in the market. Mixed reality will really take off after that. Microsoft is way ahead in the plumbing – all whilst we didn’t notice. They held their Hololens product back to be big in business (so that it wasn’t a solution without a problem). Now it can be applied to field worker scenarios, visualising things before they are built.

To give an example, recently, I had a builder quote for a loft extension at home. He described how the stairs will work and sketched a room layout – but what if I could have visualised it in a headset? Then imagine picking the paint, sofas, furniture, wallpaper, etc.

The video below shows how Ford and Microsoft have worked together to use mixed reality to shorten and improve product development:

5 The new dawn of artificial intelligence

All of the legends of AI are set by sci-fi (Metropolis, 2001 AD, Terminator). But AI is not about killing us all! Humans vs. machines? Deep Blue beating people at Chess, Jeopardy, then Google taking on Go. Heading into the economy and displacing jobs. Automation of business process/economic activity. Mass unemployment?

Let’s take a more optimistic view! It’s not about sentient/thinking machines or giving human rights to machines. That stuff is interesting but we don’t know where consciousness comes from!

AI is a toolbox of high-value tools and techniques. We can apply these to problems and appreciate the fundamental shift from programming machines to machines that learn.

Ai is not about programming logical steps – we can’t do that when we’re recognising images, speech, etc. Instead, our inspiration is biology, neural networks, etc. – using maths to train complex layers of neural networks led to deep learning.

Image recognition was “magic” a few years ago but now it’s part of everyday life. Nvidia’s shares are growing massively due to GPU requirements for deep learning and autonomous vehicles. And Microsoft is democratising AI (in its own applications – with an intelligent cloud, intelligent agents and bots).

NVIDIA Corporation stock price growth fuelled by demand for GPUs

So, about those bots…

A bot is a web app and a conversational user interface. We use them because natural language processing (NLP) and AI are here today. And because messaging apps rule the world. With bots, we can use Human language as a new user interface; bots are the new apps – our digital assistants.

We can employ bots in several scenarios today – including customer service and productivity – and this video is just one example, with Microsoft Cortana built into a consumer product:

The device is similar to Amazon’s popular Echo smart speaker and a skills kit is used to teach Cortana about an app; Ask “skillname to do something”. The beauty of Cortana is that it’s cross-platform so the skill can show up wherever Cortana does. More recently, Amazon and Microsoft have announced Cortana-Alexa integration (meanwhile Siri continues to frustrate…)

AI is about augmentation, not replacement. It’s true that bots may replace humans for many jobs – but new jobs will emerge. And it’s already here. It’s mainstream. We use recommendations for playlists, music, etc. We’re recognising people, emotions, etc. in images. We already use AI every day…

6 From silicon to cells

Every cell has a “programme” – DNA. And researchers have found that they can write code in DNA and control proteins/chemical processes. They can compile code to DNA and execute, creating molecular circuits. Literally programming biology.

This is absolutely amazing. Back when I was an MVP, I got the chance to see Microsoft Research talk about this in Cambridge. It blew my mind. That was in 2010. Now it’s getting closer to reality and Microsoft and the University of Washington have successfully used DNA for storage:

The benefits of DNA are that it’s very dense and it lasts for thousands of years so can always be read. And we’re just storing 0s and 1s – that’s much simpler than what DNA stores in nature.

7 Quantum computing

With massive data storage… the next step is faster computing – that’s where Quantum computing comes in.

I’m a geek and this one is tough to understand… so here’s another video:

Quantum computing is starting to gain momentum. Dominated by maths (quantum mechanics), it requires thinking in equations, not translating into physical things in your head. It has concepts like superposition (multiple states at the same time) and entanglement. Instead of gates being turned on/off it’s about controlling particles with nanotechnology.

A classical 2 bit on-off takes 2 clock cycles. One quantum bit (a Qubit) has multiple states at the same time. It can be used to solve difficult problems (the RSA 2048 challenge problem would take a billion years on a supercomputer but just 100 seconds on a 250-bit quantum computer). This can be applied to encryption and security, health and pharma, energy, biotech, environment, materials and engineering, AI and ML.

There’s a race for quantum computing hardware taking place and China sees this as a massively strategic direction. Meanwhile, the UK is already an academic centre of excellence – now looking to bring quantum computing to market. We’ll have usable devices in 2-3 years (where “usable” means that they won’t be cracking encryption, but will have initial applications in chemistry and biology).

Microsoft Research is leading a consortium called Station Q and, later this year, Microsoft will release a new quantum computing programming language, along with a quantum computing simulator. With these, developers will be able to both develop and debug quantum programs implementing quantum algorithms.

Predicting the future?

Amazon, Google and Microsoft each invest over $12bn p.a. on R&D. As demonstrated in the video above, their datacentres are not something that many organisations can afford to build but they will drive down the cost of computing. That drives down the cost for the rest of us to rent cloud services, which means more data, more AI – and the cycle continues.

I’ve shared 7 “technology bets” (and there are others, like the use of Graphene) that I haven’t covered – my list is very much influenced by my work with Microsoft technologies and services. We can’t always predict the future but all of these are real… the only bet is how big they are. Some are mainstream, some are up and coming – and some will literally change the world.

Credit: Thanks to Rob Fraser at Microsoft for the initial inspiration – and to Alun Rogers (@AlunRogers) for helping place some of these themes into context.

Short takes: iPhone broadcasting wrong number; fractions in HTML; Word comment authors

Another collection of things I found on the Internet that might or might not be useful for other people.

SMS and phone calls using the wrong number on an iPhone

In common with most people who “work in IT”, I get called upon for family IT support. In truth, I get called upon a lot less since my trainee geek (aged 12¾) deals with most of that for me! Last weekend though, he was stumped by the problems my Mother-in-law was having with her iPhone.

She’d bought a new phone and changed providers, then ported her number to the new provider. Although calls were reaching her with the correct number on her SIM, SMS and outbound calls were using the temporary number allocated prior to porting her “real” number.

I found the solution via the Giffgaff forums – where essie112mm describes a combination of steps including turning iMessage and Facetime on/off. The crucial part for me was Settings, Phone, My Number – where I needed to edit the number to the one that we wanted to use.

Writing fractions in HTML

In the previous section, I wanted to write ¾ using the correct HTML. As it happens, WordPress has taken our my HTML ¾ and replaced it with a raw ¾ symbol but I found this article by Charles Iliya Krempeaux (@Riever) useful reading for representing less common fractions in HTML.

Microsoft Word removes the author name from comments

I write a lot of documents in my professional life. I review even more for other people – and I use the reviewing tools in Microsoft Word extensively. One “feature” that was frustrating me though was that, every time I saved a file, my comments changed from “Mark Wilson” to “Author”.

My colleague Simon Bilton (@sabrisual) pointed out the fix to me – buried in Word’s options under Trust Center, Trust Center Settings, Privacy Options, Remove personal information from file properties on save (thanks to Stefan Blom in this TechNet forum post).

Remove personal information from file properties on save

It seems that our admins have set this by Group Policy now so I won’t have the problem any more but it’s a useful one to be aware of…

Running the Pixlr Editor (or other Adobe Flash-based apps) in a modern browser

Many people will be familiar with the Pixlr browser-based image editing tool, Pixlr Editor. Unfortunately, it’s developed in Adobe Flash, a technology that’s rapidly falling out of favour with developers (about time too!) and losing browser support.

A few weeks ago, I tried to run Pixlr Editor in Chrome and found it wouldn’t work. Same for Safari. Edge gave a similar experience – in fact only Internet Explorer would play nicely!

Then I found Paulo Amaroso’s Google+ post about the issue (yes, Google+!). It seems that what I needed to do was click on the “omnibar” (the secure padlock or info button to the left of the URL in the browser) to open up Chrome settings and select Flash then Always allow on this site.

Interestingly, I’m now seeing browsers prompting me to enable Flash for the website… I suspect Pixlr have updated their website to improve the user experience.

Allow Flash for pixlr editor website in Chrome

Adopting cloud services means being ready for constant change

There’s a news story today about how Microsoft may be repositioning some (or all) of Skype for Business as Microsoft Teams (the collaborative group-based chat service built on various Office 365 services but Skype for Business in particular).

The details of that story are kind of irrelevant to this post; it’s the reaction I got on Twitter that I felt the need to comment on (when I hit 5 tweeted replies I thought a blog post might be more appropriate).

Change is part of consuming cloud services. There’s a service agreement and a subscription/licensing agreement – customers consume the service as the provider defines it. The service provider will generally give notice of change but you normally have to accept it (or leave). There is no option to stay on legacy versions of software for months or years at a time because you’re not ready to update your ways of working or other connected systems.

That is a big shift and many IT departments have not adjusted their thinking to adopt this new way of working.

I’ve seen many organisations moving to cloud services (mostly Office 365 and Azure) and stick with their current approach. They do things like try to map drive letters to OneDrive because that’s what users are used to, instead of showing them new (and often better) ways of working. They try to use old versions of Office with the latest services and wonder why the user experience is degraded. They think about the on-premises workloads (Exchange, Lync/Skype for Business, SharePoint) instead of the potential provided by the whole productivity platform that they have bought licences to use. They try to turn parts of the service off or hide them from users.

My former colleague Steve Harwood (@SteeveeH) did some work with one of risual’s customers to define a governance structure for Office 365. It’s great work – and maybe I’ll blog about it separately – but the point is that organisations need to think differently for the cloud.

Buying services from Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Salesforce, et al is not like buying them from the managed services provider that does its best to maintain a steady state and avoid change at all costs (or often at great cost!). Moving to the cloud means constant change. You may not have servers to keep up to date once your apps are sold on an “evergreen” subscription basis but you will need to keep client software up to date – not just traditional installed apps but mobile apps and browsers too. And when the service gains a new feature, it’s there for adoption. You may have the ability to hide it but that’s just a sticking plaster solution.

Often the cry is “but we need to train the users”. Do you really? Many of today’s business end users have grown up with technology. They are familiar with using services at home far more advanced than those provided by many workplaces. Intuitive user interfaces can go a long way and there’s no need to provide formal training for many IT changes. Instead, keep abreast of the advertised changes from your service provider (for example the Message Center in Office 365) and decide what the impact is of each new feature. Very few will need a full training package! Some well-written communications, combined with self-help forums and updated FAQs at the Service Desk will often be enough but there’s also the opportunity to offer access to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) where training needs are more extensive.

There are, of course, examples of where service providers have rolled out new features with inadequate testing, or with too little notice but these are edge cases and generally there’s time to react. The problem comes when organisations stick their proverbial heads in the sand and try to ignore the inevitable change.

Using a VPN to watch ITV content outside the UK

Those who follow me on Twitter (@markwilsonit) will probably be aware that I recently spent some time in mainland Europe – travelling through France, Germany and Switzerland with my family. You’ll probably also be aware that one of my hobbies is road cycling – and that I like to watch the highlights from the three Grand Tours (Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España) and from the Tour of Britain. With the Vuelta in full swing as my holiday started, I wanted to make sure I could still catch the highlights on ITV4!

Even with the new EU mobile roaming arrangements that mean I can use my mobile data allowance in other EU countries, I didn’t expect to be able to stream content reliably, so I took out a subscription to ITV Hub+, allowing me to download ITV programmes with the ITV Hub app (on Wi-Fi) and play back later, without ads. This worked brilliantly on the ferry to France but not so well once I was in my Paris hotel room, where the app detected I was outside the UK and denied access to content with a variety of error messages:

ITV Hub download error outside the UK ITV Hub download error outside the UK ITV Hub download error outside the UK

I was pretty annoyed – after all, there was no mention of UK-only coverage when I subscribed to the ITV Hub+ and the ITV website says:

“Where can I use a Hub+ subscription?

As long as you’re signed into your account, you’ll be able to use your Hub+ subscription almost anywhere. Watch ad-free telly on our website, download and catch up on the go on your mobile or tablet, or binge on your favourite shows with no interruptions on your Smart TV!”

but I did find the limitation in their troubleshooting guide later:

I am abroad and can’t watch videos
The ITV Hub is only available within the UK as we don’t hold international rights for all of our shows. If you’re lucky enough to be on holiday or you live abroad, you won’t be able to watch ITV Hub until you return to the UK”

After a bit of a rant on Twitter (no response from ITV, of course), I thought about using a VPN (and @JFDuncan suggested Plex).

Unfortunately, my own VPN back to my NAS didn’t work (on reflection, L2TP/IPSec was not the best choice of transport – as @GarryMartin pointed out when I originally set it up) and I was nervous about using a third party service until Justin Barker (@JustinBarker77) suggested TunnelBear:

Recommendations are always good. And TunnelBear seemed more legitimate than some of the sites I found…

At first, I didn’t have much luck – even after following TunnelBear’s troubleshooting advice for accessing content. 24 hours later though, something had cleared (maybe I had a different IP address, maybe it was something on my iPhone) and ITV Hub+ worked flawlessly over hotel Wi-Fi and a VPN back to the UK. I could download my cycling highlights for later playback and the VPN tunnel even seemed to improve the Holiday Inn Wi-Fi reliability – possibly due to QoS restrictions prioritising potential business traffic (VPN) over leisure (downloading videos)!

I did have some challenges with playback – so I put the iPhone into Airplane Mode before watching content, just in case the ITV Hub app detected I was outside the UK again, but each time I wanted to download over the next few days I enabled the VPN and all was good. I also subscribed to TunnelBear for a month’s worth of unlimited data allowance (I soon chewed through the 1GB I got for tweeting about the service!).

Hopefully, this information will help someone else who’s frustrated by paying for a download service and then finding it doesn’t work outside the UK…

Saving money by fixing household appliances, instead of replacing them!

Over the last few months, I’ve had engineer callouts to our dishwasher (7.5 years old), tumble dryer (13 years old) and washing machine (also 13 years old). All of these household appliances are heavily used but they’re also from good brands (Bosch/Siemens/Neff) and they’re generally going strong… I also managed to get them fixed for very little, in most cases… saving hundreds of pounds against the cost of a replacement.

Case 1: Dishwasher with error message E:24 or E:25

Neff’s E:24 and E:25 errors mean there’s something stopping the dishwasher from draining (generally a kinked hose, blocked filter or something obstructing the pump). Our machine would run the first few minutes of the cycle (a self-test, apparently) before failing with one of these messages.

Despite following advice on the ‘net, I couldn’t work out what it was (I gave the pipes a good clean – especially around where they outlet pipe was plumbed into the drain – and checked for objects blocking the impeller on the pump).

A £65 engineer call-out from a local firm checked the appliance over but the error returned – and so did the engineer. This time he did a more thorough job and, although he couldn’t find what had been preventing the machine from running, the error has gone so whatever it was has been dislodged and our dishes are getting cleaned (without spending a few hundred pounds on a new integrated dishwasher…). Total cost to repair: £65.

I didn’t use the video below (I used others at the time) but this is a pretty complete view of the process I followed, and I didn’t see the engineer do much more!

Case 2: Washing machine tripping electrical supply

A few minutes into the wash cycle, the electrical circuit would trip on our Bosch Classixx 1200 Express. I managed to run the drain cycle and remove the trapped washing. Then I tried plugging the washing machine into a different circuit but saw the same issue – so I knew it wasn’t a general problem with the supply but with the machine. A call to a local engineer (not the one I used for the dishwasher!) was all that was required to get this machine working again (he fitted a replacement heating element). Total cost to repair: just under £75 (including parts and labour).

Case 3: Condensing tumble dryer not heating fully and clothes damp at end of cycle

The engineer who fixed the washing machine didn’t work on condenser tumble dryers, so I had to call Siemens’ official engineers to fix our elderly TXL 733. With the engineer call-out charge and the list of parts required, I was looking at nearly £300. Definitely beyond economic repair! Reviews on new A++ energy-rated models with heat pumps were not great – so we went with another condenser (moving from C to B at least). This cost £95 for engineer call-out plus £299 for a new appliance, minus another £50 cashback (due soon) for buying another Siemens/Bosch appliance.

Incidentally, I didn’t buy from John Lewis (as I normally would) – Co-op Electrical delivered the new appliance the next day.

Case 4: Washing machine making a loud vibration noise

After paying out to get the machine fixed once, it was on borrowed time. No more engineer call-outs – at some point you have to cut your losses and buy a new appliance. For the last few washes, our machine has been incredibly noisy and after returning from holiday with a lot of loads to run, I was ready to have to buy a replacement today.

But, before ordering a new machine, I decided to search the Internet and, thanks to these two videos I found the problem – a shirt collar stiffener that had worked its way out of my shirt and into the workings of the machine!

Shirt collar stiffener extracted from noisy Bosch washing machine

Total cost to repair: £0.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Replace Repair?

I may still have a teenage washing machine (and a dishwasher heading toward double digits too) but newer appliances are not built to last as long as these were. Maybe these quick and relatively cheap fixes can help others keep their appliances going for a bit longer…

Downloading multiple YouTube videos for offline playback

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a nifty utility called youtube-dl that can be used to download content from YouTube for offline playback (indeed, I’m writing this on the last day of my holidays, having played precisely none of the content I downloaded to watch whilst I was away!).

In the original post, I suggested giving youtube-dl the URL for a playlist to download all videos in the playlist. It’s also smart in that if it detects any videos that are already present in the folder, it will skip them – e.g.:

[download] Cloud Tech 10 – 3rd July 2017 – Azure Machine Learning, Jenkins, Petya detection and more-ymKSGTR55LQ.mp4 has already been downloaded

But what if you want to download lots of videos that are unrelated – or just certain videos from a large list? In my case, I wanted to download a bunch of recent videos from the Global Cycling Network (GCN) – a YouTube channel that I often watch but which has thousands of videos – I certainly didn’t want to download the entire playlist!

Instead, create a file with the download commands for the individual videos, e.g.:

youtube-dl -f 22 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RsFWlvJjOg
youtube-dl -f 22 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7FxZ1kFIW0
youtube-dl -f 22 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOaeo3_E8R4

Rather than sitting at the terminal, running each one and waiting, save the file with a .sh extension (assuming a Unix-based OS – like MacOS) and then kick them off at once.

My file was called dl-gcn.sh but it’s no good running that from the Terminal – bash will complain.

bash: dl-gcn.sh: command not found

Instead, prefix with sh as follows:

sh dl-gcn.sh

and the downloads should run through in serial fashion, whilst you get on with something more interesting…

Combining GPX files for Strava

This morning was spent on my bike… as was a fair chunk of this afternoon… as is a fair chunk of many summer weekends, much to Mrs W’s disappointment.

My friend Andy and I put in 60 miles in the sunshine, on a big loop around Milton Keynes. It seems my route planning is pretty spot on, as it was almost the exact opposite of a charity ride going the other way around (we passed the same riders twice!). Unfortunately, my ability to “press the start button on my Garmin cycle computer” is clearly less good – I was about a mile from home and heading out of town when I realised I’d forgotten to start tracking my ride!

My OCD can’t cope with this. It would be able to cope with turning around, going back up the hill, starting the computer and starting the ride again – but not with some missing kilometres in my ride data! Luckily, Andy was also riding with a Garmin bike computer. Even though he’d also forgotten to start his, he was wearing a Garmin watch too – so I could combine his data and mine (we’d ridden side by side for the first part of the ride…).

I’ve blogged before about GPS Track Editor, which is a fantastic piece of free software. Using this, I could edit Andy’s data to just the part I had missing, then combine it with mine and merge the two tracks (the short gap doesn’t matter – Strava will straight-line the route between the two points). I also tried merging the files with a tool from gotoes.org – unfortunately, that ended up with a ride that was effectively double the length of what we rode (two loops). it would probably have worked with my edited files but I could also merge them in the GPS Track Editor…

Combining tracks in GPS Track Editor

I then deleted the original (short) ride from Strava and re-uploaded. Sorted.

Just one thing to sort out – all of the PRs I got on today’s ride (and there were a few) were recorded as second places by the second upload. No worries – Strava has a “refresh my achievements” tool. which sorted out that particular issue. Now my ride has the complete distance… and my achievements are correct too…