Waffle and randomness

Dreaming of a better commute

Travelling in and out of London this week for the course I’ve been attending has reminded me why working from home (mostly) is a huge blessing. At least 4 hours’ travel a day for a relatively simple 60-mile commute? No thank you!

I did, however, use two different routes with contrasting experiences and that made me think – why does it have to be this way? And what might it be like one day?

Commute route 1: Olney to London via Bedford (Thameslink/East Midlands Trains)

After driving to Bedford and finding a space in the car park (not always easy), the next question was where are the ticket machines? The option to pay and display with optional mobile phone/SMS/app payment seems to have been replaced by a system to pay as you leave the car park on foot (albeit with an optional mobile app). It uses ANPR to recognise my car but the user interface is confusing and there’s no option for contactless payment (surely a perfect use case for fast commodity transactions like this?). At £7.90 for a day’s parking (when the only reason you would ever park there is to catch a train!), it’s expensive too.

Then, at the station I bought a ticket – again falling foul of a confusing user interface (not helped by Thameslink’s corporate colours not really highlighting what I need to see). I switched to another machine and followed a different (but more familiar) purchase journey on the touch screen whilst another customer switched queues because of a broken card reader in the machine she was using.

Catching the train is simple, with frequent services but lots of stops and the (07:34) train is packed well before reaching London.

The good thing about this route (on Thameslink – not on East Midlands Trains) is that it goes right to the heart of the city (not the West End) although I change at Farringdon to get on the underground towards Tower Hill. Sadly, with no barriers to pass through and crowds of commuters I didn’t see an Oyster touch in/out machine, which I realise after boarding the train – wouldn’t it be good if there were more of these machines or if you could swipe on the train!? I touch out at the end of the journey but am charged the full fare and it takes me a lot of time on the phone waiting to sort out the charging…

Commute route 2: Olney to London via Milton Keynes (London Midland/Virgin Trains)

After a faster drive to Milton Keynes (MK is famous for its roundabouts but there’s a real benefit in the national speed limit grid road network), I park close to the station. The actual station parking is extortionate (so much so that I know some people who don’t pay, preferring to take the risk of an occasional fine) but off-street parking is available and half price if I pay by phone (£4.18).

I buy a ticket at the station but know to always allow time for queuing: there are 6 machines and 4 booths but that’s never enough! It’s 06:54 so I dash for the 06:55 London Midland service, but see that the (faster) 06:53 Virgin train has only just arrived (even though it’s showing as “on time”).

We set off towards London, only to be delayed by a vehicle striking a bridge at Watford and are overtaken by the slower London Midland service that I nearly caught earlier! Eventually, we get moving and arrive in London 20 minutes late…

A dream of a better commute

These real world stories are just single journeys and it could all be so different on another day. So let’s compare with what it could be like:

  • My calendar shows that I’m planning to be in London for the day.
  • My alarm wakes me with enough time to get ready, and the lights in the house gently warm up to wake me from my slumber.
  • I drive to the station and, as I park my phone recognises my location and that I’m stationary, asks me if I need to pay for parking and then takes care of the details.
  • Arriving on the station concourse, my digital personal assistant has pre-bookèd my train ticket and there’s a boarding pass on my phone. No paper tickets are required as the barriers can simply scan a QR code on my screen (or even use NFC?)
  • There’s a steady flow of trains (on time of course!) and as I switch to the Underground, payment is dealt with as I pass through turnstiles using a contactless payment card – and, even if I end up on the platform via a different route I can pick my boarding point (verified using location services) and ensure I’m correctly billed, using a smartphone app…
  • Realising there are delays on the line, my phone reschedules appointments as required, or otherwise ensures that contacts are aware I will be delayed.

It’s not difficult – all of this technology is available today but it just doesn’t quite work together… all of this talk of an Internet of Things brings it tantalisingly close but train companies, car park operators and other organisations still cling on to outdated methods. So it seems I’ll be dreaming for a little while longer…

 

Technology

Microsoft course review: 10968B (Designing for Office 365 Infrastructure)

I’ve spent the last three days on a Microsoft Official Curriculum training course at QACourse 10968B: Designing for Office 365 Infrastructure. Like many Microsoft courses, this is badly named (it won’t teach you how to design for Office 365) but I really did find it useful because it focuses very heavily on Microsoft’s FastTrack deployment methodology for Office 365.  Stepping through each of the stages of pilot (although it’s questionable whether enterprises will do this), deploy and enhance, the course reminds us of the key points to consider at each stage with labs to work through with a fictitious company (for once, it’s not Contoso).  Then, the final module is a full case study (using Trey Research of course) where the class divides into groups and works with the instructor (as a customer) to walk through a series of meetings to understand the environment and make the appropriate decisions for use of the Office 365 services.

I found it really beneficial – particularly the final exercise – as I’m doing this with customers all the time and it’s good to compare the approach I take with the Microsoft recommendations.  I was fortunate as well that we had a very knowledgeable instructor, Dan Lewis, and that led to some really good classroom conversations (in contrast to an Exchange course I attended at the same venue last year, where the instructor was limited in her knowledge) – and the range of roles in the room (midsize company infrastructure manager; large enterprise employees; specialist service provider; systems integrator) also added to the depth of discussion.

The one negative – and it’s a huge one – was the courseware.  Microsoft has moved from printed materials to online content and I can understand the reasons (both financial and environmental) but the system used is awful.  Microsoft Learning have partnered with Skillpipe, who have a content platform using a proprietary document format (presumably for reasons of digital rights management – although why they can’t use Microsoft’s own DRM is beyond me) and the content is only available in browser, or in a reader app for Windows (Vista/7 or 8/RT). No mobile devices – not even Windows Phone!  Added to which I find it really difficult to absorb information on screen (e.g. reading a scenario) and it really damages the learning experience.

Incidentally, if you want to learn about the detail of Office 365, this course is not for you – there’s a 5 day hands on course (Course 20346B: Managing Office 365 Identities and Services or you can access the same content, minus the hands-on elements, in the Microsoft Virtual Academy). And, if you really think that’s all a bit too much fuss and you would like to engage a Microsoft Partner instead… then you could always contact me at work!

Technology

Ethernet control for my office “traffic lights”

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the “traffic lights” I’d created for my home office (and subsequent “upgrade”). Shortly after that, I updated the solution to use three LEDs (as shown below) but it still wasn’t quite what I needed. Walking to the door to push a button and change the light defeated the object somewhat.  I needed to enable this device with a “web service”!

The solution comes in the form of an Arduino Ethernet Shield, allowing pin control over a standard Ethernet connection.  I didn’t use the official shield though – cheap imports can be found on eBay for around £7.  Following that, I amended my code using the Instructables Arduino Ethernet Shield Tutorial and another Instructables post on controlling an LED over the Internet using an Arduino.

The end result is below (or on Github) – and the Arduino uses DHCP to obtain an IP address (reservations can be used to control which one – or DHCP logs can be analysed) and a simple query string is read to set the light using:

  • http://xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx/?r for red.
  • http://xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx/?a for amber.
  • http://xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx/?g for green.

Anything else fails back to red.  

/*
Red/green LED indicator with pushbutton control
Based on http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/arduino-traffic-light-controller/

USE_GITHUB_USERNAME=mark-wilson

*/

// Setup Ethernet Shield
#include <SPI.h>
#include <Ethernet.h>
boolean reading = false;

// Enter a MAC address and IP address for your controller below.
// The IP details will be dependent on your local network (commented out if DHCP in use):
byte mac[] = { 0xDE, 0xAD, 0xBE, 0xEF, 0xFE, 0xED };
// byte ip[] = { 192, 168, 0, 112 }; //Manual setup only
// byte gateway[] = { 192, 168, 0, 1 }; //Manual setup only
// byte subnet[] = { 255, 255, 255, 0 }; //Manual setup only

// Initialize the Ethernet server library
// with the IP address and port you want to use
// (port 80 is default for HTTP):
EthernetServer server(80);

// Pins for coloured LEDs
int red = 3;
int amber = 4;
int green = 5;
int light = 0;

int button = 2; // Pushbutton on pin 2
int buttonValue = 0; // Button defaults to 0 (LOW)

void setup(){
  Serial.begin(9600);
  
  // Set up pins with LEDs as output devices and switch for input
  // Pins 10,11,12 & 13 are used by the Ethernet Shield
  pinMode(red,OUTPUT);
  pinMode(amber,OUTPUT);
  pinMode(green,OUTPUT);
  pinMode(button,INPUT);
  
  // start the Ethernet connection and the server:
  Ethernet.begin(mac);
  //Ethernet.begin(mac, ip, gateway, subnet); //for manual setup

  server.begin();
  Serial.println(Ethernet.localIP());
}

void loop(){
  
  // listen for incoming clients, and process qequest.
  checkForClient();
  
  // Read the value of the pushbutton switch
  buttonValue = digitalRead(button);
  if (buttonValue == HIGH){
    changeLights();
    delay(1000); // Wait 1 second before reading again
  }
}
  
void changeLights(){
  // Change the lights based on current value: 0 is not set; 1 is red; 2 is amber; 3 is green
  switch (light) {
    case 1:
      turnLightAmber();
      break;
    case 2:
      turnLightGreen();
      break;
    case 3:
      turnLightRed();
    default:
      turnLightRed();
  }
}

void turnLightGreen(){
  // Turn off the red/amber and turn on the green
  digitalWrite(red,LOW);
  digitalWrite(amber,LOW);
  digitalWrite(green,HIGH);
  light = 3;
}

void turnLightAmber(){
  // Turn off the green/amber and turn on the red
  digitalWrite(green,LOW);
  digitalWrite(amber,HIGH);
  digitalWrite(red,LOW);
  light = 2;
}

void turnLightRed(){
  // Turn off the green/amber and turn on the red
  digitalWrite(green,LOW);
  digitalWrite(amber,LOW);
  digitalWrite(red,HIGH);
  light = 1;
}

void checkForClient(){

  EthernetClient client = server.available();

  if (client) {

    // An http request ends with a blank line
    boolean currentLineIsBlank = true;
    boolean sentHeader = false;

    while (client.connected()) {
      if (client.available()) {

        if(!sentHeader){
          // Send a standard http response header
          client.println("HTTP/1.1 200 OK");
          client.println("Content-Type: text/html");
          client.println();
          sentHeader = true;
        }

        char c = client.read();

        if(reading && c == ' ') reading = false;
        if(c == '?') reading = true; //found the ?, begin reading the info

        if(reading){
          Serial.print(c);

           switch (c) {
             case 'a':
               turnLightAmber();
               break;
             case 'g':
               turnLightGreen();
               break;
             case 'r':
               turnLightRed();
               break;
           }
        }

        if (c == '\n' && currentLineIsBlank)  break;

        if (c == '\n') {
          currentLineIsBlank = true;
        }else if (c != '\r') {
          currentLineIsBlank = false;
        }

      }
    }

    delay(1); // give the web browser time to receive the data
    client.stop(); // close the connection:

  }

}

All it needs now is another service to read my Lync status and call the Arduino accordingly, although, having got this far, I have to admit the form factor is not exactly brilliant and I probably should spend the money on a Busylight or a Blynclight instead so that my Arduino can be repurposed for a new project!

Or, of course, there’s Garry Martin (@GarryMartin)’s beautifully simple approach:

Technology

Visual C++ runtime error R6034 caused by duplicate startup entries

I think I’ve logged more IT support calls this week than ever before… most of which have resulted in frustration (possibly on both ends of the phone) – I guess that’s the danger of being a technical end user, who doesn’t really want to have a 90-mile round trip for a desktop support technician to look at a problem when I can really fix things for myself.

Yesterday’s call was really just a “niggle” though – but, as I was in the process of fixing some of the issues on my PC, one I wanted to be rid of…

Every time I booted the PC (not resumed from hibernation – just on a cold start or warm reboot), I was presented with a Visual C++ Runtime Library error:

Runtime Error! Program: C:\Program Files (x86)\Common Files\BeCrypt\BCSystray.exe R6034 An application has made an attempt to load the C runtime library incorrectly. Please contact the application's support team for more information

It wasn’t a major issue – more of an annoyance – but Googling didn’t turn up much so, once again, I tried the IT support route. When it didn’t look like I was getting very far, I also tweeted ByCrypt – who were very helpful but, in the meantime, the correct support channels came back with the solution (and a 100% success rate, I’m told).

The issue was that a previous software update had left two startup entries for the BeCrypt system tray application active – one 32-bit and one 64-bit:

Disabling the 32-bit C:\Program Files (x86)\Common Files\BeCrypt\BCSystray.exe entry (not the 64-bit C:\Program Files\Common Files\Becrypt\BCSystray.exe version) and restarting the computer cured the problem.

 

 

Technology

Windows Phone 8.1 Backup won’t run? Check OneDrive is authenticated successfully

Over recent months, the Windows Phone I use for work (a Nokia Lumia 625) has become progressively more unreliable. Initially, there was just the odd random reboot which also reset the date and time to the out of the box values. Then, I found it was becoming unresponsive several times daily – and there was no pattern to it that would suggest any one application was at fault. The only fix was to hold the power button for at least 10 seconds, after which would perform a soft reset (needing the date and time to be set each time). On one occasion it even hung when I went straight from a reboot to the Date and Time settings without running any other apps!

After a call to our mobile operator’s service desk, I arranged a handset swap but that meant I needed to back up my phone. Windows Phone is pretty good in that regard, in that my configuration settings, applications, etc. are linked to my Microsoft account (depending on the Backup settings). Unfortunately though, the backup hadn’t run successfully for a month – which seemed to co-incide with the time I accidentally killed the DHCP server at home…

Windows Phone can’t be configured with static IP (at least not until the next release) so I tried backing up over 3G and 4G networks, and even using a neighbour’s Wi-Fi, but it kept failing.  Googling was turning up posts about changing my lock screen image but that made no difference so I decided to build a new DHCP server to try and restore the configuration that had worked previously.  Nope. No luck there either Eventually, I found a post that suggested checking the OneDrive app was authenticated.  Sure enough, the app had updated and I needed to log in again. With OneDrive up and running, the Backup also jumped into life. Result. A day or so later, with the new handset delivered by courier, logging into my Microsoft account allowed the phone to be restored.    

I had to supply passwords for mail accounts, etc. and all of the apps need to be authenticated again but that’s not really a problem.  Internet Sharing settings needed to be edited and the Bluetooth pairing with my car needed to be recreated too but by and large the configuration settings migrated to the new handset (as did all of my text messages and call history). I’m sure there will be other things I need to fix (and I lost the images on the first handset as they weren’t included in the backup) but at least my phone doesn’t keep rebooting!

Technology

Raspberry Pi infrastructure server (DNS, DHCP, TFTP)

A long time ago, I used to run real servers at home – I had a Compaq Prosignia 300 for a while and then a Compaq (or maybe it was an HP) Proliant DL380 running in my garage. Then, a few years back, I stopped running my own mail server and put all of the infrastructure services onto a low-powered PC running Windows Server (working alongside a NetGear ReadyNAS Duo). Recently, I found I didn’t even need Active Directory (I have unmanaged devices and cloud services these days) so I started to switch over onto a Raspberry Pi.  Each move made a huge difference to my electricity bill but I’ve had some mishaps too. I accidentally turned off the Pi and corrupted the flash memory (oops), then recommissioned the previous server. Then, I accidentally killed the power on that too and it’s not come back up (could be the PSU, or the motherboard – but whichever it is it’s unlikely to get fixed) so last Saturday night, I found myself bringing the Pi back into service as a DNS, DHCP and TFTP server – partly to improve my Internet access speeds and partly to back up my Windows Phone (that will be the subject of another blog post).

Luckily, I had the notes from last time I did it – but they hadn’t made it into a blog post yet, so I’d better record them in case I need to do this again…

Assuming that the Raspberry Pi is running Raspbian, the following commands should be entered from command line (e.g. LX Terminal):

  • sudo nano /etc/network/interfaces (to set up static IP – in this case 192.168.1.10 on a class C network):
    #iface eth0 inet dhcp
    iface eth0 inet static

    address 192.168.1.10
    netmask 255.255.255.0
    network 192.168.1.0
    broadcast 192.168.1.255
    gateway 192.168.1.1
  • sudo nano /etc/resolv.conf (to set the DNS server address – 8.8.8.8 will do if you don’t have one):
    nameserver 8.8.8.8
  • sudo nano ifdown eth0 (take down the Ethernet connection).
  • sudo nano ifup eth0 (bring it back up again).
  • ifconfig (check new IP settings.)
  • sudo apt-get install dnsmasq (install the Dnsmasq network infrastructure package for small networks)
  • Optionally, sudo apt-get install dnsutils (to get utilities like nslookup and dig). Unfortunately, this is resulting in bash: dig: command not found (I’m pretty sure it worked when I did this a year or so ago but, for now, I’m managing without those tools.
  • sudo service dnsmasq stop (stop the Dnsmasq service)
  • sudo nano /etc/dnsmasq.conf (edit the Dnsmasq config) – these are the settings I changed (all others were left alone) – the original version of the file includes full details of what each of these mean):
    domain-needed
    bogus-priv
    no-resolv
    server=212.159.13.49
    server=212.159.13.50
    server=212.159.6.9
    server=208.67.222.222
    server=208.67.220.220
    server=8.8.8.8
    local=/home.markwilson.co.uk/
    expand-hosts
    domain=home.markwilson.co.uk
    dhcp-range=192.168.1.100,192.168.1.199
    dhcp-host=00:1d:a2:2f:20:f9,192.168.1.199
    dhcp-option=3,192.168.1.1
    dhcp-option=6,192.168.1.10
    dhcp-option=42,192.168.1.1
    dhcp-option=66,192.168.1.10
    dhcp-option=66,boot\pxeboot.com
    dhcp-option=vendor:MSFT,2,li
    enable-tftp
    tftp-root=/home/pi/ftp/files
  • Optionally, add some static entries for fixed IP items on the network with sudo nano /etc/hosts:
    192.168.1.1 router
    192.168.1.10 raspberrypi
  • sudo nano /etc/resolv.conf (set the DNS server address again – to use the local server):
    nameserver 192.168.1.10
  • sudo service dnsmasq start (start the Dnsmasq service)
  • View client leases with cat /var/lib/misc/dnsmasq.leases.

A few more notes that might be useful include that pinging short names may need a trailing . .
Other blog posts that helped me in creating this include:

(I haven’t actually tested the TFTP functionality – I need it for my Cisco 7940 phone, but need to recover the files from the old server first).

Now, all I need is a UPS for my Pi – and it looks like one is available (but I’m waiting for the new version that can keep the device running a while on battery power too…)

Technology

Resuscitating iPass when the client service fails to load

I’m on the train this morning, and Virgin Trains Wi-Fi works with the iPass service that my company uses for roaming Wi-Fi connectivity.  Unfortunately, iPass didn’t want to play this morning – but I found a fix…

The error message displayed said something like “An important service (client service) failed to load. Please contact your administrator”.  So I opened the Services console (services.msc), sorted by startup type and looked for Automatic services that were not showing as “Started”. Sure enough, one of these was iPlatformService (described as the iPass iPlatform Service and components”).

With the iPlatformService started, I could successfully connect to the on-train Wi-Fi. I still can’t get a VPN connection but that’s not related to iPass.  So it looks like I’ll have to drive to the office to empty my Outbox (and please don’t get me started on how Outlook Anywhere has been available since 2003 and using a VPN for email is outdated…).

Waffle and randomness

The sleeper train to no-where!

There’s something about travelling long distances by train that seems much more civilised and pleasurable than flying. Certainly, for me, the glamour that may once have been associated with taking a jet plane is no longer present – at least not in economy class – and there was nothing pleasant about arriving at a very busy “London Luton” Airport at 6:30 on a Monday morning to catch a flight to Inverness.

Of course, navigating our increasingly arcane airline security: disposing of liquids; removing items of clothing; and being asked to take a sizable chunk of my possessions out of my hand luggage before it can be x-ray scanned gave me something to do for an hour. That was followed by lots of waiting around at the terminal as I arrived far too early, because of the unpredicatability of rush-hour traffic in South East England.

But this trip was special – my return journey would be by train – and I’d booked onto the ScotRail Caledonian Sleeper as far as Crewe (from where I would make an early-morning exit and hop on a train to Manchester). One of only two remaining sleeper services in the UK (there’s also a Night Riviera Sleeper service from London to Cornwall), I’ve often seen the Caledonian Sleeper come through Milton Keynes as I’ve waited for my train to London and thought “what a great way to travel overnight”. This was my opportunity – and at £112.40 for train and a bed for the night, it was no more expensive than a no-frills flight and a budget hotel.

The day was going so well – right up to the point that my taxi driver to the station said that he’d always been delayed when he’d used the ‘Sleeper. Did he jinx me? Somehow I doubt it but I should have realised that the high winds that had made my flight a little bumpy would also be causing chaos with overhead power lines on the railways and I arrived at Inverness station to see that the 20:44 to London was cancelled. Cancelled? But that’s where I was to be sleeping!

I’m not sure if I was more disappointed that I wouldn’t be taking the sleeper train, or worried about a bed for the night but ScotRail’s station staff seemed to know the drill. Clearly the cancelled sleeper is something that they have seen many times before and it becomes a “stationary” hotel for the night when it can’t run south. Most Caledonian Sleeper passengers are heading for London and the advice given to those of us who had arrived early enough was to jump on a train to Edinburgh, then grab a bed on the Edinburgh sleeper (plenty of space at this time of year), before boarding the 5.40 “Flying Scotsman” to London, which only arrives in Kings Cross a couple of hours after the Sleeper should have got to Euston. My journey was a little more complex though: I could stay in Inverness and travel south the next day, hoping that the issues caused by adverse weather conditions on the West Coast route would have eased; or travel to Edinburgh, then see if there was a bed for me on the Sleeper carriages waiting there (although ScotRail staff were confident there would be) and take an East Coast and Trans-Pennine route via York to Manchester. I elected for the Edinburgh option (on reflection, I should have stayed in Inverness, got a longer night’s sleep and taken in the Scottish scenery the morning afterwards – although I would have been travelling for most of the day instead) and so I spent my evening on a three-and-a-half-hour stopping service to Edinburgh… Upon arrival, I was directed to the Caledonian Sleeper Lounge, which was a scruffy affair, piled high with cardboard boxes, but staffed by a friendly ScotRail employee who directed me to drinks and snacks until our train/hotel was ready and it was only a few minutes later when I was able to go to the platform.

Sure enough, there was plenty of room on the train and a steward showed me to a berth, explaining “it’s number 1 and over the wheels but that won’t be a problem as we’re not going anywhere tonight!”. I was tired and had it not been for the need to charge my mobile devices (and the lack of power sockets in the sleeping berths – a side effect of using 1980s-built railway carriages I guess) I might have turned in for the night but instead I headed for the Lounge car where I found a warm welcome.

Whilst complementary tea/coffee and sandwiches were on offer, I waited for a locomotive to be connected to the train to provide the power needed for staff to cook meals. A short while later I tucked into Haggis, Neeps and Tatties, washed down with Deuchars. After all, if I’m in Edinburgh, I might as well enjoy some Scottish food and drink! It was good too – not the railway travellers’ fare that I’m used to on Virgin Trains – although it maybe something that first class travellers are more used to!

Red lights for the Caledonian Sleeper train

By then, I’d been up for almost 19 hours and decided that it was time for bed, making my way back to my berth. The standard berths are bunk beds and there’s not a lot of space around them but I found the flip up cover to access the sink and the spare bed was somewhere to store my luggage! There are options for single berths in first class – or there’s a reclining seat option for those who don’t need a bed. The rooms are not en-suite but there are toilets in the end of each carriage. For those travelling in larger groups, there are connecting doors to the next compartment and the warm, comfortable bedding, together a variety of lighting options (including a night light) meant that I was soon in the land of nod, albeit without the sound of railway wheels running over joints in the track. Maybe that would have helped to relax me but I did have a pretty restless night – although I was surprised that I didn’t hear noise from other trains in the station there didn’t seem to be a way to turn off the noisy air conditioning unit (only a temperature control).

At 5:00, I heard a knock on the door, whereby a steward handed over a cup of tea and told me which platform the London train would be leaving from. Even though I wasn’t taking that service, my time on the sleeper had to end – staff were clocking off and it was locked up by 5:30. Maybe this wasn’t quite the Caledonian Sleeper experience I’d hoped for – but I had got some rest at least and was looking forward to taking in some east coast scenery as I made my journey south.

It was certainly an eventful trip but, far from putting me off the journey, it’s something I’d try again. ScotRail’s staff were all very friendly and there’s an atmosphere on board that makes taking the sleeper feel like something different and special. The Caledonian Sleeper is looking a little tired now, but there’s a £100M investment programme coming as part of a new 15-year franchise and it may be worth making a return visit.  Unfortunately, I can’t convince Mrs Wilson to join me, so it may just have to be the next time I have a business trip to Scotland!

Technology

Office “Sway” breezes into view

Earlier this week, Microsoft announced a new Office authoring product.  It’s not about blogs, documents, or presentations – its all of those and neither of them (say Microsoft). It’s something totally new: a “web-oriented canvas with content aggregation and assisted authoring”. And it’s called Sway.

I’m sure there are other products that do similar things – my kids are very excited about the things they’re doing at school using Google Drive at the moment (although I’m not sure that goes quite as far).  Storify has been around for a while, but Sway seems to go further – and I think it’s really quite exciting…

Sway is about sharing information – the content people have access to (photos, social posts) but this is increasingly dynamic – so we want to create presentations that reflect the current state of things. As users, we create/publish/share instantly but need to do this without having to master the details of many apps. Microsoft sees Sway as a digital assistant to do the “heavy lifting” for polished cohesive output.

I’m sure that all sounds good to a marketing person but what does it really mean? Well, I have a real use case. I have something that I’d like to present to a particular audience (Milton Keynes Geek Night). That audience is made up (mostly) of designers, web developers and very image-conscious people. They know what looks good.  I have 1 minute to get my message across – and if it looks messy… well, I’ve blown it.

I want to avoid using the same templates that people have seen time and time again, or needing great design skills – and Sway uses machine-based algorithms to help present the content. It’s kind of like a “designer in a box” where I can specify intent (what’s important, what to keep together, etc.) and use Sway’s capability to display on different devices – with it’s engine to reflowing content appropriately to the device.

There’s a Microsoft video that demonstrates this and draws out the fact that Sway is mobile-first, cloud-first so device agnostic (indeed, Microsoft starts the demo using an iPhone):

If you don’t have 17 minutes to watch the video, it includes:

  • Inserting a photo; using voice to text to dictate a caption; swiping to emphasise (or delete) content.
  • Adding more content using different devices (e.g. OneNote content as text, then breaking out into sections by highlighting text as headers, adding content to the story line from OneDrive – dragging photos onto the canvas; grabbing items and grouping them with transformation effects like stacking images; adding videos from YouTube and tweets from Twitter).
  • Showcasing pictures to make them centred, larger (or even smaller); grouping content but without having to say how many pixels high/wide they should be and the exact location.
  • Defining a structure (Sway can can have linear or non-linear outputs); changing the colour scheme based on the colours in an image, or using pre-populated moods.
  • Sharing via social networks, emailing, or embedding in a web page as HTML5.
  • And viewing just needs a browser – no additional software.

Sway is in preview at the moment – and more styles, layouts, etc. will follow.

You can sign up for the preview at sway.com (I’m on the list and hoping to get to play soon). Now, if only I had an approved account I could create a dynamic Sway about Sway – and this blog post would be so much more exciting… oh well, hey ho – for now the videos and links in this post take the old skool (WordPress) approach.

Technology

Effectively targetting social media interaction: are you speaking Scottish in Toyko? (Mark McCulloch at #MKGN)

Every three months, I have a mild panic because:

  1. I’ve successfully registered for Milton Keynes Geek Night (MKGN) but neglected to put it in my diary.
  2. Three months have gone by and I’ve not blogged about the last MKGN, even though David and Richard know me as the resident blogger…

This time is no exception…

I could say I was distracted because Mrs W. accompanied me to the last Geek Night; I could blame Google Keep for not allowing large enough notes to store a whole evening’s worth of note-taking and for losing the first part of my notes (although it sounds a bit like “the dog ate my homework” and I’m sure I’ve used a similar excuse before) so let’s just stick with “because I’m busy – but MKGN #9 it was a really worthwhile evening and I’m sure #10 will be too”. You can catch the audio on Soundcloud, but I want to write about one talk that I found particularly interesting – Mark McCulloch (@WeAreSpectaculr)’s “Are you speaking Scottish in Tokyo” (which seems to have an additional relevance today)…

Are you speaking Scottish in Toyko?

If you’re wondering what Mark means by “Speaking Scottish in Tokyo” (or, as he put it, “Okinawa the noo!”), Mark’s whole point is that social media interaction needs to be effectively targetted.  He’s quite happy to highlight that his message is based on a book by Gary Vaynerchuk (@GaryVee) – Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World – but it highlights some important points:

  • First up – you need to be native to the social channel in use. Lazy brands put the same post on multiple channels. Sometimes it just doesn’t work…
  • Added to that, many social agencies have no real plan or return on investment.
  • Next – don’t expect instant results: you need to give, give, give, then take. Too many brands broadcast on social media. The good ones have a conversation. The excellent ones hook people in with something that they find useful – and then ask for something in return.

Mark talked about a rule of thirds developed at Yo Sushi (brand, product, fun/health/life); drawn as a Venn diagram you need to hit the point where all three meet and Mark suggests building a mind map of things to talk about based on these 3.

Next, the perfect post needs a call to action that’s easy to understand, perfectly crafted for mobile and for other digital devices – and respects the nuances of the target network… so, for example, on Facebook:

  1. Is the text too long?
  2. Is it provocative, entertaining and/or surprising?
  3. Is the photo striking?
  4. Is the logo visible?
  5. Have you chosen the right format for the post?
  6. Is the call to action in the right place?
  7. Is this interesting?

So, here are some first class “jabs”:

Now, Mark actually showed examples from Facebook – I’ve used the Twitter equivalents here because they are easy for me to embed, but this one doesn’t work on Twitter (more than 140 characters):

Those are all good jabs. This isn’t (it’s too complex):

But this one is a right hook (a new product that’s not too “salesy”):

Knock-out!

And what about when you don’t respect the medium? This is native:

This isn’t:

So, in summary, if you’re a brand using social media to interact with customers:

  1. Plan your social media content using the “rule of thirds”.
  2. Plan your social media content into “jab, jab, jab, right hook” micro stories.
  3. Think about the channel you’re posting on, the native language and the audience behaviours.
  4. Think about the time of day when you’re posting (auto-schedule updates, for example).

What about the other talks?

No promises, but I hope to blog about some of the other talks soon…

And what’s happening tonight?

As usual, tonight’s MKGN looks to have some fascinating talks (I confess I don’t have a clue about Jumbotrons, Twilio or MEAN coding!):

  • Ben Foxhall (@benjaminbenben) is back, this time to talk about “Jumbotrons”!
  • Rachel Andrew (@rachelandrew) is giving her postponed talk on “Your own definition of success – choosing a profitable side project idea”.
  • Elliot Lewis (@elliotlewis) will be talking about “The Apprentice”.
  • “Code Smarter, be MEAN” is the topic for Tamas Piros (@tpiros).
  • And Michael Wawra (@xmjw) is scheduled to speak about “Twilio”)

Join in!

Milton Keynes Geek Night happens every three months at The Buszy in Milton Keynes (old bus station, opposite Milton Keynes Railway Station) and is free (thanks to generous sponsorship). Because it’s free, and the speakers are generally so good, it “sells out” quickly, but keep an eye on the @MKGeekNight Twitter feed – and bag yourself a place for the next one in December!

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