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!

An evening with Sony, at their 2014 consumer electronics product preview

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself heading to Brooklands, site of the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit, except that the purpose of my visit was not to experience any form of motor sport, but to spend an evening with Sony, at their UK headquarters, taking a look at the consumer electronics products that the Japanese giant is bringing to market in 2014.

Working for another Japanese technology giant, as I do, it’s easy to forget just how big Sony is in the consumer electronics space.  Happily, in the UK, we don’t really compete (except maybe around PCs – and even then we focus on different markets). As news since my visit suggests that Sony is looking to dispose of its Vaio PC business and transform the TV business into a wholly owned subsidiary (perhaps to resolve the issue of the innovators’ dilemma?), I’m happy that I could learn about the sound and vision, photography and computing devices that Sony is bringing to market this year without any conflict of interest.  And Sony started the evening off by telling us how they are concentrating on the user experience – on the best picture and sound quality – be that for televisions, cameras, projectors or other digital devices.

TV – forget 3D – 4K is where it’s at

It has to be said that Sony’s 4K TVs are stunning.  I first saw 4K Ultra HD images whilst visiting The Design Museum late last year and my trip to Brooklands re-enforced my view – whether it’s for watching films or sport.  Quite how I’ll be able to receive a 4K signal at my house is another issue (I have “up to 8Mbps” ADSL2) and whilst I like the idea of a 65″ TV, our living room is not really large enough… but hey! (It should be noted that Sony’s X-Reality processing engine can upscale some content too).

Sony X9Sony explained some of the technologies that their mid-high end 2014 TVs feature and it’s clear that it’s no longer just about being “super slim”.  The quest for enhanced picture and sound quality includes a range of technologies such as:

  • X-Reality PRO image enhancement for increased realism, texture and a more refined output
  • Triluminos imaging (launched last year – but now with increased colour range and much improved viewing angle – as shown in this image from Sony with, from left to right,  a 2013 Sony TV, a 2014 Sony TV and a Samsung TV)
  • X-tended Dynamic Range – improved brightness, whilst retaining detail and colour.
  • Long duct speakers with a new wedge shape to increase speaker capacity and sound quality – including software to adjust the settings depending on whether the panel is wall or table mounted (wall-mounted units use the wall for reverberation – I pity the neighbours!)
  • Front mounted speakers on some models for better sound direction, a magnetic fluid system as coolant and conductor for efficient sound transfer – and an RF-connected subwoofer option for those who don’t want a 5.1 system.
  • ClearAudio+ sound processing, to separate dialogue from sound effects, reduce/increase sports commentary volume, or provide virtual surround sound.

And, when one Sony representative was asked a question about the future of 3D TV:

“Our focus is 4K”

I think that says it all really (the 3D glasses for my TV have never come out of their box)!

Smart viewing

I have a mid-range Samsung TV, which, on the whole I’ve been very pleased with but I do have to admit that the SmartHub is a little less smart than I would like at times. Clearly Sony seems Samsung as a leading competitor (their competitor comparison units are all Samsungs!) and, from what I saw of the developments in Sony’s Bravia software, it seems that they have a much better user interface – and an interesting approach to control with their “One-Flick”gesture-based remote (a standard remote is provided too). Whilst some of the apps seem a little gimmicky (e.g. “Football mode” for “less ghosting and more immersive viewing” because of Sony’s tie up with the 2014 World Cup), the usuals are there too (iPlayer, etc.) as well as Sony’s Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services.

The features I found most interesting were Social Viewing (integrating social media use with television-watching, albeit with some issues around content filtering) and Photo share (using the TV as a hub to share images between devices, scanning a QR code or using NFC to connect, with no app required).

As for the full range of 2014 Sony TVs, rather than rely on my notes being correct, why not get it straight from the horses’ mouth, as it were.

Getting connected

I also had some time to spend in Sony’s “network room” and whilst I have to say I was pretty impressed with the range of Vaio laptops in touch and non-touch forms (including the lightest ultrabook in Europe), all with NFC and some featuring ClearAudio+ (which really made a difference using the PC speakers), the potential sale of Sony’s PC business and my own professional IT links made these no more than a “ooo – that’s nice” view…

There were Xperia phones and tablets too but the real items I found of interest were the wearables – a Smartband that pairs with an Android phone for “life logging” and the SmartWatch 2 which acts as a remote screen for an Android phone, but also runs some of its own apps.  Wearables are big right now and I find this a particularly exciting market – it will be interesting to see how Sony’s devices take off…

 

Digital imaging (and a date for my diary)

A few years ago, Sony bought Konica-Minolta’s digital imaging business and they’ve clearly used it to good effect, expanding the Sony range to cover everything from digital compacts to high-end DSLRs (and of course expanding their own range of digital still and video cameras).  As a Nikon DSLR-shooter, I found the range confusing, with seemingly competing models using two different lens mount systems:

  • The A-mount is effectively the old Konica-Minolta system.
  • The E-mount is used by the modern, small form factor cameras.

Thankfully there are converters available, which means A-mount E-mount users can use adapters for Nikon and Canon lenses.  I guess I’m a bit of a Luddite too – I like a solid full-frame DSLR with high quality (often heavy) glass up front and am unconvinced by the new ranges of small cameras with interchangeable lenses (possibly because I got burned by Minolta in the late-1990s with an interchangeable lens APS film camera!).  Having said that, I increasingly find myself using the camera in my pocket (my phone) and it was interesting to see how Sony is enhancing the user experience with seamless integration between devices, including built-in NFC and Wi-Fi communications, together with iOS and Android PlayMemories apps for a range of photography uses).  I was also impressed to see that Sony is really moving ahead with behind full-frame cameras – be that the DSC-RX1, the prosumer ?7/7R or the ?99. Indeed I’d be happy to have an RX1 as my carry-everywhere camera (albeit a rather pricey one!)

On the video front, Sony has always been a leader and I was impressed to see both the NEX-VG900 full-frame interchangeable lens camcorder and the AX100 – a 4K Handycam targeted at home film-makers, using a 1″ sensor and class 10 SD card storage (that reminds me, I really should find a way to stream all of the raw footage off my collection of DV tapes onto a disk somewhere!).

Oh yes, and that date for my diary? Sony sponsors the World Photography Awards, and the 2014 exhibition will take place at Somerset House in London from 1-18 May.

Wall of sound

The last demonstration of the evening was focused on audio.  I didn’t check out the high resolution audio systems (although I heard others doing so, and they certainly sounded good) – I was interested in something portable – like the Bluetooth and NFC SRS-BTS50 or the higher-end SRS-X5 unit.  After all, when all you’re playing is compressed MP3 files, or music streamed from Spotify, it’s amazing how good it can sound on a small speaker setup. Then there were earphones, modern Walkman digital music players (I didn’t know that brand still existed but it seems you can get everything from a USB stick to an iPod competitor and even an MP3 Walkman built into a set of headphones!), clock radios, docking stations, DAB radios, all in one Hi-Fi systems – the works.

<tl;dr>

I’m pretty impressed with Sony’s consumer electronics plans for 2014.  Sure, what geek wouldn’t be interested in huge super-high definition TVs, some smart PCs and wearable tech, a selection of imaging devices that meet the needs of most, if not all, consumers and some seriously big sounds. But it’s more than that.  Maybe I drank the Sony Kool-Aid but I really did leave with the distinct impression that Sony is out to create a user experience that transcends devices and simply delivers the best picture and sound quality.  If I didn’t already have a Samsung Smart TV, Apple and Samsung phones, a Lenovo PC, Nikon cameras and an Xbox 360, I might well be persuaded to make my next consumer electronics purchase one from Sony…

[Update 19 Feb 2014: corrected statement re: adapters for third party lenses with Sony cameras]

Registering MSCOMCTL.OCX on Windows 7 (x64) to run the FLAC Front End

I’ve mentioned before that iTunes mangled my MP3 library and then a multiple disk failure on my ReadyNAS took it away completely and, eventually, I will re-rip the hundreds of CDs that (thankfully) I still have in my loft…

In the meantime, I’ve been researching (aka asking followers on Twitter) what’s the best way to re-rip my music and the general consensus was to rip as Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) and then convert to MP3 as required:

@ Haven't we done this before? Encode to FLAC and use dBpoweramp Music Converter to change to anything else http://t.co/HTI3nx8t
@GarryMartin
Garry Martin

A couple of weeks ago, I downloaded FLAC from Sourceforge but the installer gave an error message, complaining that it failed to register MSCOMCTL.OCX (on my Windows 7 x64) system.

Neil C. Obremski describes the problem in his 2008 blog post and the problem file is a Visual Basic 6.0 control which, not surprisingly, Microsoft no longer ships with Windows. Whilst there are unofficial downloads available, Microsoft also makes the Visual Basic 6.0 Common Controls (MSCOMCTL.OCX and COMCTL32.OCX) available as free downloads but they are contained in a .EXE file that didn’t want to play ball either.

No problem, 7-Zip opened the .EXE and I successfully extracted the file I wanted, copying it to C:\Windows\SysWOW64 on my machine.

Following this, I dropped into a command prompt (running as an administrator) and typed:

regsvr32 mscomctl.ocx

With the OLE control extension (.OCX) registered, I was able to run the FLAC front end (although I actually used dBpoweramp instead… it’s tremendously powerful and the CD ripper setup guide helped me to get going).