Weeknote 4: music; teenagers; creating a chatbot; tech, more tech and tech TV; 7 day photo challenge; and cycling (Week 46, 2017)

Another week, another weeknote…

There’s not much to say about work this week – I’ve mostly been writing documentation. I did spend a good chunk of Monday booking hotels and travel, only to find 12 days of consulting drop out of my diary again on Friday (cue hotel cancellations, etc.) but I guess that’s just life!

Family life: grime, rap and teens!

Outside work, it’s been good to be close to home and get involved in family life again.

I had the amusement of my 11 year-old and his friends rapping to their grime music on my car on the way to/from football training this week (we’re at the age where it’s “Dad, can we have my music on please?”) but there’s only so much Big Shaq I can take so I played some Eminem on the way back. It was quite endearing to hear my son say “I didn’t know you knew about Eminem!” after I dropped his mates off. I should make the most of these moments as the adulation is dropping off now he approaches his teens!

Talking of teens, my eldest turned 13 this week, which was a big day in the Wilson household:

 

I’m not sure how this little fella grew into this strong chap (or where the time in between has gone) but we introduced him to the Harry Enfield “Kevin the teenager” videos a few months ago. I thought they were funny when I was younger but couldn’t believe how accurate they are now I’m a parent. Our boys clearly understood the message too and looked a bit sheepish!

Tech

I did play with some tech this week – and I managed to create my very own chatbot without writing any code:

Virtual Mark (MarkBot1) uses the Microsoft QnA Maker and runs in Microsoft Azure. The process is described in James Marshall’s blog post and it’s very straightforward. I’m using Azure Functions and so far this serverless solution has cost me absolutely nothing to run!

It’s also interesting reading some of the queries that the bot has been asked, which have led to me extending its knowledge base a few times now. A question and answer chatbot is probably more suited to a set of tightly bounded questions on a topic (the things people can ask about me is pretty broad) but it’s a nice demo…

I also upgraded my work PC to the latest Windows 10 and Office builds (1709 and 1710 respectively), which gave me the ability to use a digital pen as a presentation clicker, which is nice, in a geek-novelty kind of way:

Tech TV

I have an Amazon Prime membership, which includes access to Amazon Prime Instant Video – including several TV shows that would otherwise only be available in the US. One I enjoy is Mr Robot – which although completely weird at times is also strangely addictive – and this week’s episode was particularly good (scoring 9.9 on IMDB). Whilst I was waiting for the next episode to come around, I found that I’d missed a whole season of Halt and Catch Fire too (I binge-watched the first three after they were recommended to me by Howard van Rooijen/@HowardvRooijen). Series 4 is the final one and that’s what presently keeping me from my sleep… but it’s really good!

I don’t have Netflix, but Silicon Cowboys has been recommended to me by Derek Goodridge (@workerthread). Just like the first series of Halt and Catch Fire, it’s the story of the original IBM PC clone manufacturers – Compaq – but in documentary format, rather than as a drama series.

iPhone images

Regular readers may recall that a few weeks ago I found myself needing to buy a new iPhone after I fell into the sea with my iPhone in my pocket, twisting my ankle in the process…

People have been telling me for ages that “the latest iPhone has a great camera” and, in daylight, I’m really impressed by the clarity and also the bokeh effect. It’s still a mobile phone camera with a tiny sensor though and that means it’s still really poor at night. If a full-frame DSLR struggles at times, an iPhone will be challenged I guess – but I’m still finding that I’m inspired to use the camera more.

7 Days 7 Photos

Last week, I mentioned the 7 days, 7 photos challenge. I’ve completed mine now and they are supposed to be without explanation but, now I have a set of 7 photos, I thought I would explain what and why I used these ones. I get the feeling that some people are just posting 7 pictures, one a day, but these really do relate to what I was doing each day – and I tried to nominate people for the challenge each day based on their relevance to the subject…

Day 1

7 Days 7 Photos Day 1

I spotted this pub as I walked to Farringdon station. I wondered if “the clerk and well” was the origin of the name for “Clerkenwell” and it turns out that it is. Anyway, I liked the view of the traditional London pub (I was on my way home from another one!) and challenged my brother, who’s a publican…

Day 2

7 Days 7 Photos Day 2

I liked the form in this photograph of my son’s CX bike on the roof of my car. It didn’t look so clean when we got back from cyclocross training though! I challenged my friend Andy, whose 40th birthday was the reason for my ride from London to Paris a few years ago…

Day 3

7 Days 7 Photos Day 3

Not technically a single photo – lets’ call it a triptych, I used the Diptic app (as recommended by Ben Seymour/@bseymour) to create this collage. I felt it was a little too personal to nominate my friend Kieran, whose medals are in the lower left image, so I nominated my friend James, who was leading the Scouts in our local remembrance day parade.

Day 4

7 Days 7 Photos Day 4

I found some failed backups on my Synology NAS this week. For some reason, Hyper Backup complained it didn’t have enough storage (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Azure that ran out of space!) so I ran several backups, each one adding another folder until I had all of my new photos in the backup set. I felt the need to challenge a friend who works in IT – so I challenged my friend Stuart.

Day 5

7 Days 7 Photos Day 5

My son was cake-baking, for Children in Need, I think – or maybe it was my other son, baking his birthday cake. I can’t really remember. I challenged a friend who runs a local cafe and regularly bakes muffins…

Day 6

7 Days 7 Photos Day 6

Self-explanatory. My son’s own creation for his birthday. I challenged my wife for this one.

Day 7

7 Days 7 Photos Day 7

The last image is following an evening helping out at Scouts. Images of attempts to purify water through distillation were not that great, so I took a picture of the Scout Badge, and nominated my friend Phil, who’s another one of the local Scout leaders.

(All seven of these pictures were taken on an iPhone 8 Plus using the native camera app, then edited in Snapseed and uploaded to Flickr)

Other stuff

I like this:

And I remember shelves of tapes like these (though mine were all very neatly written, or computer-generated, even back in the 1980s):

On the topic of music, look up Master Boot Record on Spotify:

And this “Soundtrack for Coding” is pretty good for writing documentation too…

I added second-factor authentication to my WordPress blog this week. I couldn’t find anything that uses the Microsoft Authenticator, but this 2FA WordPress plugin from miniOrange uses Google Authenticator and was very easy to set up.

Some UK libraries have started loaning BBC Microbits but unfortunately not yet in my manor:

Being at home all week meant I went to see my GP about my twisted ankle (from the falling-into-the-sea incident). One referral later and I was able to see a physio… who’s already working wonders on helping to repair my damaged ligaments. And he says I can ride my bike too… so I’ll be back on Zwift even if cyclocross racing is out for the rest of the season.

Cycling

On the subject of Zwift, they announced a price rise this week. I understand that these things happen but it’s gone up 50% in the US (and slightly more than that here in the UK). All that really does is drive me to use Zwift in the winter and to cancel my membership in the summer. A more reasonable monthly fee might make me more inclined to sign up for 12 months at a time and create a recurring revenue for Zwift. Very strange business model, IMHO.

I particularly liked the last line of this article:

“Five minutes after the race
That was sooo fun! When can I do it again?!”

I may not have been riding cyclocross this weekend, but my son was, and Sunday was the popular Central Cyclocross League race at RAF Halton. With mud, sand, gravel and steep banks, long woodland sections and more, it looked epic. Maybe I’ll get to ride next year!

I did get to play with one of the RAF’s cranes (attached to a flatbed truck) though – amazing how much control there is – and had a go on the road safety rig too.

And of course, what else to eat at a cyclocross event but Belgian fries, mayo and waffles!

Finally, my friends at Kids Racing (@kidsracing) have some new kit in. Check out the video they filmed at the MK Bowl a couple of weeks back – and if you have kids in need of new cycling kit, maybe head over to HUP CC.

Wrap-up

That’s it for this week. Next week I have a bit more variation in my work (including another Microsoft event – Azure Ready in the UK) and I’m hoping to actually get some blog posts written… see you on the other side!

Weeknote No 3: subscription fatigue; travel; 7 day photo challenge; Microbits; and remembrance (Week 45, 2017)

Another week, another week note. And I really should try and publish these a bit earlier (it’s late on Sunday evening again!)

More on my new roof bars/carriers

Last week I wrote about buying my new Thule roof bars and bike carriers from roofracks.co.uk.

After I’d fitted the bars, I noticed a small dent in one of them. I had been super-careful when fitting them, so I can be pretty sure that it wasn’t anything I did. I emailed roofracks.co.uk and, whilst the dent is only visible in certain light conditions and difficult to photograph, they said they couldn’t clearly see the dent in the pictures I sent (including this one):

Dent in new Thule wingbars

(Is it just me? I thought the red ring would help…)

They wanted me to return the damaged bar at my cost so they could inspect and send a replacement (I’d already said it wasn’t worth it but asked if they could apply a small discount). For that reason, I can no longer recommend roofracks.co.uk. Which is a pity, because they have competitive pricing (presumably based on volume sales).

Subscription fatigue

I also referred to subscription fatigue in last week’s weeknote. I knew that my friend David Hughes had written about it somewhere, but I couldn’t remember where… he pointed me to his newsletters (issue 2 and issue 4).

“Each developer that moves to this business model says “it’s just the price of a cup of coffee” every month, and it is. But my […] issue is that many apps are moving to this business model, and that starts to add up.

I could be in the position where I am spending hundreds of pounds a year to essentially rent software.

That is not for me.”

Hear, hear!

Travel

I spent half the week in the north west of England. Rochdale to be precise.

As it’s so difficult to get a parking space near Milton Keynes station after about 8:00 on a weekday, I caught a bus from home. I found a great website that uses open data to list all UK bus services. Bustimes.org.uk is not an official resource but, like realtimetrains.co.uk, it is an incredibly useful one!

I’d bought a ticket from Milton Keynes to Rochdale and back which, despite showing as only valid via Manchester, was not clear about whether it could be used on trams between Manchester’s two main stations (Piccadilly and Victoria). Manchester Metrolink later confirmed that the ticket wasn’t valid (so it’s a good job I played safe and bought a tram ticket then!).

If only Transport for Greater Manchester took a leaf out of Transport for London’s book with tickets that include public transport transfers (cf. Underground between London termini on through journeys) though it seems you can get a ticket that is valid for tram transfers – I just don’t know how!

I found it interesting to see that people on Twitter thought £67.50 was expensive for a return trip from Milton Keynes to Manchester (I thought it was a bargain). It’s certainly not expensive when compared with demand-based pricing on peak Manchester-London services (which can be over £300) or with the cost of driving ~400 miles to Rochdale and back…

Anyone who’s spent any time in and around Manchester will know it’s a city with a reasonably high chance of precipitation. Stupidly, I forgot to take a coat that fits over my suit to Greater Manchester. Muppet. Luckily I had an umbrella in my work bag…

Also worth knowing (from my travels further south at the end of the week): the rear First Class section in Thameslink trains is declassified until further notice. I have no idea why but it’s useful to get access to some power:

The socket location is a little unusual though:

Work opportunities

A couple of nights in Rochdale also gave me a chance to catch up with an ex-colleague and one of my most supportive former managers, Alan Purchase (@AlanPurchase).  He’s at Capgemini now – who seem to be hoovering up a lot of people with Microsoft skills (as are Microsoft themselves). Meanwhile, I got one of the regular LinkedIn contacts asking me if I’d be interested in a fantastic opportunity from someone I’ve never heard of who won’t even say who they are working for but this one was really special: it would involve moving my family to Ireland. Tempting though it may be to keep my EU citizenship post-Brexit, thanks but no thanks.

The rest of the week

As mentioned above, I was back dahn sarf for the second part of the week and spent two days in London with the first one at Microsoft learning more about the capabilities of Azure with regards to data and the intelligent cloud. I’ve been trying to grok this for a while (my background is Infrastructure). The second day was more mundane, supporting a colleague on a consulting engagement.

I tried using Apple Maps for turn-by-turn navigation on my watch whilst riding my Brompton to Microsoft on Thursday. Unfortunately, Apple Maps lacks cycling directions (it only has walk, drive, public transport or taxi) and I got a bit lost with the various “no cycling” routes in Regents Park which made for an interesting route map!

7 Days 7 Photos Challenge

I’ve been “challenged” for the 7 days 7 photos challenge on Facebook. The rules are simple:

Seven days, seven black and white photos of my life. No humans. No explanation. Challenge someone every day.

Some people are critical of this – saying it’s not a challenge, and suggesting it’s just creating a bunch of poor black and white photos on Facebook. I’m actually finding it a great opportunity to think about what I’m doing and to capture something from the day. Anything that gets me thinking creatively about capturing images has to be good, right?

3 days in and my efforts are on Flickr – see what you think so far…

7 Days 7 Photos Day 2

Other stuff

I was signposted to John Naughton (@jjn1)’s 95 theses about technology by Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70). I think it should be required reading for anyone in a senior technology role…

I do most of my geek stuff with my eldest son, so I asked the youngest if he fancied a play with a BBC Microbit. Our inventor’s kit arrived this week:

We had a lot of fun and it was fantastic to see his face light up when his Microbit started playing the sounds and displaying the letter of the notes as he had instructed.

I’ve played with the Relive app a few times to generate a birds-eye view of a route I’ve cycled. GPX Hyperlapse takes a different view – using Google Streetview to help view a route (perhaps in preparation for a ride).

IBP Index looks interesting as an approach for measuring the relative effort of different activities (e.g. cycling, running, etc.).

Today was Remembrance Sunday and a particularly poignant one where I live in Olney as so many local men were lost at the Battle of Passchendaele, exactly one hundred years ago. It’s always good to see so many people turn out to pay their respects but such a shame the traffic wasn’t halted for the 2 minute silence, as it has been in previous years.

D700-20171112104016.jpg

That’s all for now

Right, that’s all for now. If you read this far, thanks for sticking with me. These posts take a long time to write so any feedback is welcomed – it would be good to know I’m not just writing a diary for my own benefit!

Weeknote No 2: Thule bike carriers; Microsoft #FutureDecoded; and a new iPhone (Week 44, 2017)

After some positive feedback on last week’s newsletter-style blog, I’ve decided to keep going with the format for at least another week.

So, please indulge me in a little narcissism as I write about a week in the world of Mark… although this post is a little late as it’s now the following Monday (I ran out of weekend…)

New bike carriers

Last week I wrote about racing cyclocross with my son. I have a 4-bike carrier that fits on a towball on my car but it’s just a cheap one from Halfords and, to be honest, it’s not that great. I’ve been considering getting a roof mounted system for when I have just a couple of bikes (i.e. not the whole family’s) and, I decided to buy a good product this time (buy cheap, buy twice…).

That meant a Thule system – and their website helped me to work out which parts to buy but I was still looking to do better than recommended retail price. After failing to land a couple of Thule ProRide carriers on eBay, I bought the whole setup from RoofRacks.co.uk, including matching locks as standard and free standard delivery.

One thing I thought long and hard on was whether to go for silver or black finish (my car has black roof rails). In the end. I decided on silver – the 10% premium for black parts is simply not worth it – especially as the silver rails/racks have some black components.

Survey marks

Whilst walking in Dorset last week, I spotted a strange disc bolted to a pavement, with the words Survey Mark on it. I asked Ordnance Survey if they knew what it is and they responded to say it’s a “historical bolt style benchmark” – a legacy system for recording the height above sea level.

Back to work (highlights)

After last week’s holiday, it was back to work this week – with a bang. My employer, risual, was headline sponsoring Microsoft’s Future Decoded event – which meant a couple of full-on (but enjoyable) days at London ExCeL in a mixture of stand duty (chatting to delegates, capturing potential sales leads), presenting (4 short sessions on digital transformation) – albeit in a theatre “room” at the side of the main exhibition hall (so not the best environment) – and joining the keynote sessions (though I missed all of the breakout sessions). Added to UK Azure User Group events on Monday and Tuesday evenings, it was a very busy few days!

I really enjoyed the presenting opportunity – I’d like to do more if I get the chance, though I do prefer to create my own content (rather than presenting material created for me). I also saw some pretty cool presentations that I hope will result in some blog posts of their own – particularly the ones around Quantum Computing and DNA Storage.

Accessibility

Hobbling around with a twisted ankle (after last week’s unexpected fall into the sea) has given me a little insight into what it’s like to have limited mobility. I’ve still walked, but more slowly than usual – and not the distances I’d normally expect to cover. No cycling, running or circuits this week either…

The closing keynote at Future Decoded had a major focus on inclusivity and accessibility – including the surprising statistic that 1 billion people in the world are disabled in one way or another (hidden or visible).

Every one of us has reduced ability from time to time – not just people who are disabled. That may be permanent, temporary (as in my case) or situational (such as when holding a child whilst on a phone call). Assistive technology is something that we can all use to make the most of our senses and get the best use of time – the most important thing we have!

iPhones…

Readers of last week’s post may remember that I fell into the sea, with an Apple Watch Series 3 on my wrist (water resistant) and iPhone 6s in my pocket (not water resistant). As well as the discomfort from the twisted ankle, that’s turned out to be quite an expensive slip…

After a couple of days drying out, my phone was working (sort of), with notifications (and even a phone call) on my Apple Watch – and my computers could “see” the iPhone. But the screen wasn’t working so I couldn’t unlock it.

The damage to the phone was covered on my home contents policy as accidental damage but it was going to take a couple of weeks for the insurers to get their agent to collect, assess and then potentially return a repaired device to me. I don’t want a repaired device. Water damage leads to all sorts of longer-term issues, particularly when combined with corrosion, so they agreed to replace my phone if Apple would certify that the device was beyond economic repair due to liquid damage.  After seeing the bright red liquid damage indicator, Apple was happy to do that. Unfortunately, they valued my iPhone 6S at £299 – apparently the replacement price for an upgrade. Take off £100 excess and I had £199 in the bank but no working phone.

I’d only been saying how expensive the new iPhone is and how I’d keep mine for a bit longer the day before I trashed my old one… now I’m paying for that expensive iPhone 8 Plus over 20 months, with interest-free finance through the Apple Upgrade Programme (AUP… or “ay-up” as the staff referred to it… I thought I’d suddenly been transported to Yorkshire). It also gives me the option to exchange for a new phone in a year’s time (iPhone 8S, 9 or 11 or whatever the next one is called), and it includes 2 years’ Apple Care. Let’s hope the camera is as good as I was led to believe by some of my friends (that’s why I got the plus, and why I got the 256GB version).

Unfortunately, iCloud wasn’t backing up as much as I hoped and a restore to my new phone was a little underwhelming. I had backed up my photos manually but there were a few I hadn’t got, and I had some expenses I really wanted to click “upload” on. I searched the ‘net for a local Apple repair specialist to see how much a new screen might cost and found Northampton Apple Repair, who helped me out with a temporary screen and battery so I could take a full iTunes backup of my phone. Having seen the inside of my phone (lots of salt), they were amazed it even booted.

I also learned that:

Other stuff

The Carrot Weather app has an AR mode and it’s pretty cool:

This is what an Azure Stack looks like. Yes, it’s just a (mostly empty) rack of 1U servers and some very clever software:

This is what a Tesla looks like under the covers:

The Apple 3.5mm to Lightning audio converter is likely to get lost. Maybe leave it permanently attached to a set of headphones (via @timbo_baggins)?

After a few months of using Todoist Premium for free (thanks to discount codes), I’ve signed up for a year… it must be good because I suffer from subscription fatigue and am trying to avoid adding to the pile of products that I use for “less than the price of a cup of coffee” a day/week/month/whatever. They add up to a lot of coffee…

Weekend

No cycling for me this weekend but a good opportunity to get together with friends for a bit to eat and drink, followed by fireworks. After reading some night-time photography suggestions from Apple I downloaded a different iOS camera app ( Procam 5) but didn’t really get the opportunity to try it out before the live display…

Taking photos of fireworks is never easy – particularly on a smartphone. I’m quite pleased with some of the firework pics I took last summer though…

2017-07-08 22.36.21.jpg

I fitted the new roof bars on Sunday – they look pretty good. I tested the bike carriers too but took them off until I need to use them.

The instructions are OK, once you get your head around them, but this video helped a lot:

Wrap-up

I’ll be back with more next week – probably a little-less Apple-centric but I need to balance out this week’s Microsoft-centric tweeting, I guess! ^MW

A newsletter? Weeknote? Blogletter? Issue No 1 (Week 43, 2017)

Inspired by David Hughes (@DavidHughes) and Christian Payne (@Documentally), a few weeks ago, I ran a Twitter poll to see if anyone would be interested in a newsletter of some of the stuff I’ve been up to. The responses were mixed, but some went along the lines of “the email format doesn’t resonate with me” and “I like reading what you’ve been up to on your blog”. My blog has been falling by the wayside in recent months and I do want to write more, so I’ve decided to write a weekly (ish) newsletter here instead. In between, I’ll stick write the usual tech-inspired stuff but this will be more eclectic. Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70) does something similar with his weeknotes – but he must be incredibly disciplined to get them out every Friday. I spend Fridays trying to end my week.

So, here goes for issue 1. I’m still not sure what this thing should be called?

A week off

I’ve just had a week off work. I needed it. My previous blog post describes some of the challenges I’ve had lately and I really needed to decompress. After the initial weekend madness (just like every weekend), the first half of the week was spent at home, mostly sorting stuff out (more on that later), then a few days away with my family…

The weekend before…

My eldest son has started competing in the Central Cyclocross League and I’ve been joining in the novice races whilst he races in the Under 14s (both races take place on the same course at the same time).

I seriously considered not racing last week after a very hard practice lap but then my son instructed me to “put your numbers on and race your bike”. Oh, OK then!

I’m reasonably fit for long distance stuff (I recently completed the rather hilly inaugural Velo Birmingham 100 mile sportive) and my Caveman Conditioning (circuits) a couple of times a week help with general fitness but cyclocross is something else. Particularly when you’re using a mountain bike because your son is riding his CX bike (how inconsiderate!). I think it may be time for an n+1. Certainly if we do this again next season!

Unfortunately, being ignored in the LBS doesn’t leave a very good feeling. Being ignored on social media after sending the tweet even less so…

Shopping

I don’t often wear a suit for work these days – but there are occasions where it’s still expected (first meetings, particular customers, etc.). I’ve been putting off buying a new suit for a while because a) there are two in the wardrobe that I really should slim down into b) I’d rather spend the money elsewhere. This week I gave in and bought something new.

I took one of my sons with me and he happily browsed the John Lewis technology department whilst I was suit shopping. He thinks I spent a lot of money though and suggested I get a blazer with some M&S trousers like his school uniform for a fraction of the price! Welcome to the world of work, son!

Whilst he was browsing the technology, I spotted this:

The Windows Premium collection appears to be Windows 10, running on a selection of higher-end PCs (Dell XPS 13, HP Spectre, etc.). First time I’d heard of it though…

Administration

I spent a good chunk of my week off working through an administration backlog at home. Ultimately that results in a lot of scanning (on my Canon ImageFormula P-215 desktop scanner), some shredding and a little bit of filing (for those few documents that I do retain in paper form).

After hunting around for PDF editing tools (ideally command line) to remove some pages I didn’t need inside some existing PDF files, I found this comment on the MacRumors forums:

“Preview does all of this quite well, fyi.”

Sure enough: open the PDF in MacOS Preview; delete the extra pages; save. Job done.

Karting, photography and train travel

My youngest son wanted to go to a friend’s go-karting party this week whilst my wife and eldest were heading down to Dorset for a few days. No problem, he could stay at home with me whilst I did some of my admin and then we’d follow on by train.

The karting inspired me to get my Nikon D700 out again. It may be big and heavy but I love the control of the DLSR experience and the results. I’ve tried some pro apps on my iPhone (like 645 Pro) but it’s just not the same!

_DSC7044

Afterwards, the train journey to Dorset gave my son and I a mini-adventure (bus, train, tube, another train) to join the rest of the family – and with a Family and Friends railcard it was less than £30!

Walking

Last Friday was a gorgeous day – almost no wind and bright sunshine didn’t seem like late-October! My family took the chance to go for a walk along the South West Coastal Path from Swanage to Studland (for a pub lunch).

Afterwards, I walked back with one of my sons – and what a treat that was! Glorious views and late-afternoon sunlight meant lots of photo stops but it was certainly my favourite part of the walk!

2017-10-27 16.43.07

2017-10-27 16.58.00

2017-10-27 17.08.54

On the beach

Saturday’s weather was less impressive but, after lunch at our favourite Swanage coffee shop (Java), coincidentally located next to my favourite Swanage restaurant (Chilled Red, where my wife and I had eaten the night before), we took the boys to the beach. They were happy with their wetsuits to keep the cold at bay whilst they played but I decided to stay dry. At least that was the plan.

I was walking out on one of the groynes to take a picture of the boys, when I found that walking boot soles have almost no grip once they meet wet wood and, faced with the choice of falling face-first (or probably chest-first) onto  a large wooden beam or throwing myself towards the sea, I chose the latter… managing to twist my ankle on the way, and then realising that my wallet and my iPhone were in my pockets.

I’m hoping that the phone will be covered on the household building and contents insurance – we have accidental damage cover and I’ll be making that call tomorrow… otherwise I could be getting an iPhone 8+ sooner than planned!

In the meantime, I’ve found out a lot about the water resistance of various Apple products:

Zwift and Android

My son fancied having a go on my Tacx Vortex trainer today, so we tried to get it working with Zwift for him.

Normally, I use the iOS app on my iPhone but, as that’s still drying out, it wasn’t an option. Zwift is currently available for Windows, MacOS and iOS but not (yet) Android so we went back to my original Windows PC-based setup with Zwift Mobile Link as a Bluetooth bridge. After spending a lot of time trying to get it working this afternoon with my son’s Android phone, it seems that I may need to update the firmware on my trainer for it to be recognised as a controllable trainer via the Android version of Zwift Mobile Link and Bluetooth LE (currently they only see it as a power meter and cadence sensor).

Wrap-up

That’s about it for this week… let me know what you think of the whatever-this-is (newsletter? blog post? something else?) and I’ll think about writing another one next week.

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.