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.

Bulk renaming digital photos for easier identification

Managing digital content can be a pain sometimes. Managing my own photos is bad enough (and I have applications like Adobe Lightroom to help with my Digital Asset Management) but when other family members want help whilst sorting through thousands of photos from multiple cameras to make a calendar or a yearbook it can get very messy.

For a long time now, I’ve used a Mac app called Renamer to bulk rename files – for example, batches of photos after importing them from my camera.  The exception to this is my iPhone pictures, which Dropbox rather usefully renames for me on import using the date and time, suffixing as necessary to deal with HDRs, etc. I only have a couple of gigabytes on Dropbox, so I move the renamed files to OneDrive (where I have over a terabyte of space…). The problem with this is that there needs to be enough space on Dropbox for the initial import – which means I have to use a particular PC which recognises my iPhone and remembers which photos have previously been imported. If I use another PC it will try and re-import them all (and fail due to a lack of available space)…

My wife has a different system. She also uses OneDrive for storage but has some files that have been renamed by Dropbox (to yyyy-mm-dd hh.mm.ss.jpg), some that have been renamed on import by something else (to yyyymmdd_hhmmsssss_iOS.jpg) and some that are just copied directly from the iPhone storage as IMGxxxx.jpg. My task? To sort this lot out!

Multiple images with the same time stamp

We decided that we liked the Dropbox name format. So that became the target. I used Renamer to rename files to Year-Month-Day Hour.Minutes.Seconds.jpg (based on EXIF file data) but the presence of HDR images etc. meant there were duplicates with the same time where a whole second wasn’t fine-grained enough. We needed those fractions of a second (or a system to handle duplicates) and Renamer wasn’t cutting it.

The fallback was to use the original filename as a tie-break. It’s not pretty, but it works – Year-Month-Day Hour.Minutes.Seconds (Filename).jpg gave my wife the date/time-based filename that she needed and the presence of the original filename was a minor annoyance. I saved that as a preset in Renamer so that when I need to do this again in a few months, I can!

Renaming digital photos in Renamer using a preset

No EXIF data

Then the files with no EXIF data (.MOVs and .PNGs) were renamed using a similar preset, this time using the modification date (probably less reliable than EXIF data but good enough if the files haven’t been edited).

Thousandths of seconds

Finally, the files with the odd format. Mostly these were dealt with in the same was as the IMGxxxx.jpg files but there were still some potential duplicates with the same EXIF timestamp. For these, I used progressive find and replace actions in Renamer to strip away all but the time a RegEx replacing ...... with nothing allowed me to remove all but the last three characters (I originally tried .{3}$ but that removed the 3 characters I actually wanted from the tail end that represent thousandths of seconds). One final rename using the EXIF data to Year-Month-Day Hour.Minutes.Seconds.Filename.jpg gave me yyyy-mm-dd hh.mm.sssss.jpg – which was close enough to the desired outcome and there were no more duplicates.

What’s the point? There must be a better way!

Now, after reading this, you’re probably asking “Why?” and that’s a good question. After all, Windows Explorer has the capability to provide image previews, the ability to sort by date, etc. but it’s not up to me to question why, I just need an answer to the end-user’s question!

Using Renamer is reliant on my Mac – there are options for Windows like NameExif and Stamp too. I haven’t used these but it appears they will have the same issues as Renamer when it comes to duplicate timestamps. There’s also a batch file option that handles duplicate timestamps but it doesn’t use the EXIF data.

Meanwhile, if anyone has a script that matches the Dropbox file rename functionality (including handling HDRs etc. which have identical timestamps), I’d be pleased to hear from you!

[Update 1 January 2017: These Python scripts look like they would fit the bill (thanks Tim Biller/@timbo_baggins) and James O’Neill/@jamesoneill reminded me of ExifTool, which I wrote about a few years ago]

Short takes: text editing; Windows Phone; and recovering deleted images…

More snippets from the life of a geek playing at being a manager in the IT industry…

Replacing text with a carriage return/line feed in Windows Notepad

It’s a long story but I needed to find out how many people are in our department, at a level above me.  My manager is on holiday, so I couldn’t ask him. Instead, I drafted an email to the whole department, expanded the distribution list and then counted the names…

Of course I didn’t quite do it like that… I pasted the list into a text file (which I thought I’d import to Excel as a CSV and then count the number of rows). That didn’t work out (I got 111 columns instead and I lost count shortly after AA, AB, AC, etc.) so I tried replacing the “; ” with line feeds in Notepad. Notepad can’t do that, but Word canCtrl+H will open the find and replace dialogue and using ^p as the string for the replacement will insert a new paragraph mark. 111 replacements were made (hence 111 names).

Changing the voicemail number on my Windows Phone

One of the issues with my iPhone is that I can’t change the voicemail number from 901 (O2 – the network my phone thinks it’s on) to 443 (Giffgaff – the MVNO that my account is actually with).  I’ve jailbroken and hacked around with config files but it doesn’t work on iOS 7.0.4.

Thankfully, my Nokia Lumia 625 (running Windows Phone 8) is a little more flexible.  When new, it asked me what the voicemail number I needed was.  In the absence of any information from my service provider (EE), I googled and found information that suggested it was +447953222222. My IT department later suggested I should use +447973100123 and changing it is as simple as hitting the ... in the phone app and entering settings, then changing the voicemail number.  As my messages are still intact, I guess that both numbers actually end up in the same location…

Turning off Twitter’s lock screen updates on Windows Phone

Talking of Windows Phone, when I installed the Twitter app it asked if I wanted to see selected tweets on my lock screen.  It seemed like a good idea at first, until I realised I couldn’t actually click on them.  Turning off the Twitter lock screen updates was difficult to hunt down – it’s not set via the Twitter app settings but in the lock screen settings, as Jamie Thomson (@jamiet) and Craig Hawker (@craighawker) highlighted to me.  Thanks guys.

Recovering deleted images from a camera flash drive

Of course, any of us who work in IT know that we automatically get to provide a family IT support service.  I shouldn’t complain because, after my parents in-law paid for someone to do some work on their PC I was horrified to see that he had removed Microsoft Security Essentials and added AVG (which I had removed because it kept nagging to upgrade to a paid version), installed a load of unnecessary software (Defraggler, Firefox, etc.).  My “keep it simple, stupid” approach to septuagenarian IT had been destroyed by someone who wanted to inflict his way of computing on others.

Anyway, back to the point…

…My Mother in-law was disappointed to find she was missing some images on her digital camera.  She swears the camera did it by itself (I suggest it was user error) but, critically, no new pictures had been taken since.  Following advice from PC Advisor, I used a free application called Recuva to restore the deleted files on the memory card (ironically, from the same software company that creates Defraggler, the tool I said was unnecessary a little earlier).  It was beautifully simple, although I was unable to get Windows to recognise the camera as a drive (it does depend on the camera) and had to mess around with card readers instead.

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]

Faster websites, better photography, a better browser, great conferences and a better life (#MKGN)

Last night was the fourth of the tremendously successful MK Geek Nights (MKGN), organised by David Hughes (@DavidHughes) and Richard Wiggins (@RichardWiggins).

And what a night it was.  Interesting and inspiring talks from great speakers, as usual – and I promised I’d write a summary blog post so here it is, albeit a little longer and a little later than planned…

Adventures with Google PageSpeed

Kier Whitaker (@kierwhitaker) kicked off the evening, with a few tips for speeding up websites:

  1. Make fewer HTTP requests:
    • Each JS or CSS file and every image is a round trip across the network. The fewer trips made across a congested network, the faster the page loads.
  2. Use Minify to compress and concatenate CSS and JS files :
    • Codekit is one option for embedding Minify in your workflow; there are command line tools too.
    • Consider using a master file with imports and then minify to compress the output (might not be so useful as an approach when working in teams).
  3. Optimise your images:
    • ImageOptim is one option – and even that 50-60-70% the images can still look great.
    • Apparently, Photoshop’s Export to Web functionality is not so good [damn!].
  4. Only use what you need:
    • When working with libraries, you don’t have to use all of Modernizr, jQuery, etc. – maybe just include the parts that you need (e.g. AJAX and not the whole library).
  5. CSS at the top, JS at the bottom:
    • This is a simplistic rule and you might need to break it sometimes (e.g. to stop a flash of unstyled type when using Typekit).
    • It’s about percieved speed rather than actual page loads [but perception is reality].
  6. HTTP compression:
    • Use GZIP compression on the server. On Apache this can be configured using .htaccess or in httpd.conf.
  7. Browser caching:
    • Make the browser keep a copy of the file – if only a page is only updated infrequently, you can cache for longer. Images, etc. can have long expiry but it’s not so great on dynamic sites!
    • Have a look at the HTML5boilerplate .htaccess file for inspiration – and read up on “cache busting”.
  8. Enable HTTP keep-alive:
    • By keep the connection open for a few more seconds, you can lose the overhead of additional requests.
  9. Cache dynamic content:
    • WordPress is quite heavy and can have 15-16 database queries on a simple home page. If you can cache the output then serve a flat file, this can save time.
    • Rails and many PHP frameworks have similar concepts.
  10. Use a content delivery network:
  11. Beware of boilerplates:
    • Boilerplates can leave behind a lot of unnecessary resources (e.g. favicons) – and these might even be downloading your 404 page if they are not present!
    • Check to see that all the assets you reference actually exist…
  12. Test widely:
    • Try a few sites to help optimise your code (e.g. Google PageSpeed; Yahoo Yslow; WebPageTest.org).
    • Kier likes the detail with WebPageTest.org and it provides two views – one for a fresh request and another to see how effective caching is.
    • Beware that the sites might contradict each other.
    • Also use developer tools in browsers, like the Google Chrome Inspector – look at the network tab and see when resources are loaded from cache, etc. (examine the headers too).

Once you’ve implemented a few tweaks, you might find that the last few percent to get to perfect are difficult – there are some things that you just can’t control. But, on a big website, incremental changes add up to big improvements – you might want a strategy to tray and work things out.

My site scores 84/100 on Google PageSpeed so it looks like I have some work to do…

Better photography by design

I’ve been taking photos for nearly 35 years and I’m still rubbish at it. Well, maybe not rubbish but I maintain there’s two sides to photography: anyone can learn the technical stuff; but, to create great images, you need to have a creative eye…

Al Power (@alpower) gave a great 5 minute talk on taking better pictures – not rocket science but some simple steps that everyone can take to get much better results.

“So, what makes a good photo?” asked Al:

  • Is it camera gear?
    • Not really, you can probably push your existing one. It’s often said that the best camera is the one you have with you… whether that’s a smartphone or a DSLR.
  • Composition plays a big part and Al showed four examples:
    • A skater: moving from left to right, gives a sense of motion. Leave some negative space for the skater to move into. And their legs and arms form triangles.
    • A spiral staircase: the shape and lines of the staircase lead the viewer into the picture. Repeated shapes and patterns work well.
    • A jetty: lead-in lines capture attention and bring the viewer into the image.
    • A beach: using the rule of thirds to divide the image into nine segments, and to place things on grid lines/intersections.
  • Try a different perspective:
    • Take the same shot from different angles, maybe three or four times. High or low, zoomed in or out – see what works.
  • Use the light:
    • Light is probably the most important control for a picture.
    • You can take great pictures in any conditions – but direct sunshine is not always good: perhaps place a subject under a tree in direct shade and use even, reflected light; on cloudy days sky is huge lightbox; the time of day makes a difference too
  • Learn how to process your pictures:
    • With a DSLR – raw images are amazingly powerful.
    • Use Snapseed on iOS and Android.
    • On a PC or Mac, use iPhoto, Picassa, Lightroom or Aperture.
    • Attend a workshop, watch some of Adobe’s videos, or a find a good YouTube channel.
  • Practice and look for inspiration:
    • Henri Cartier-Bresson was quoted as “your first 10,000 photos are your worst”.
    • No-one was born an amazing photographer and we’re on a journey – “give yourself permission to suck”, says Al – and practice.
    • Work out what tricks are employed by those that inspire you – break them down and apply them to your own images.

A web developers guide to Windows 8

Martin Beeby kicked off with a self-deprecating video, for all of us Internet Exploder lovers:

Then he moved on to tell us about modern.ie – a website to help developers design for Internet Explorer 10 and see if and where the might be problems, if they are using out of date libraries, or vendor prefixes that are no longer required. One example of the tips included is this code to ensure that a responsive site really is responsive, making sure that it displays properly when running on the side of a Windows 8 display:

@-ms-viewport{width: device-width;}

There’s also advice on creating icons that will look good on a Windows 8 desktop – and a 3 month subscription to BrowserStack for cross-browser testing.

Moving past modern.ie, Martin explained that Windows 8 can run HTML and JavaScript apps locally – so web developers can be app developers too – and, of course, because this is Windows 8, we were encouraged to embrace touch…

I only wish that the video Martin wrapped up his talk with was available on the web (I’m told it will be soon)… if I ever see it again, I’ll tweet the link…

The value of conferences

I had high hopes for this talk – I need to convince my new boss’ boss that there is value in conferences. And there is – but Craig Lockwood (@CraigInWales)’s talk started out by talking about the costs…

  • The costs to the organiser: a venue; speakers (fees and expenses); marketing (lanyards, programs, promo codes for discounts, etc.); insurance (weather, speaker sickness, etc.); judgement (you can’t please everyone – someone will be unhappy); refreshments; and time.
  • The costs to the speaker(s): time (to write a talk); judgement (what might others say they think of you?)
  • The costs to the attendee: ticket costs; travel; accommodation; and time

So what does this mean? Why do we need conferences? After all, Craig exclaimed, plumbers don’t get together to discuss latest pipe techniques! Our techniques and even the canvas we work on changes too regularly to keep up so we share information. Freelancing can be a lonely job – so meetups are great to build relationships and share knowledge.

Twitter, suggests Craig, has become the watercooler and conferences are the parties. Of course, some idiots still spoil things and some conferences find that they now need codes of conduct! So be respectful – it’s fine to disagree (respectfully) – but we should air our grievances personally and not publicly [Hmm… I once blogged about a pretty awful vendor event… think I might be guilty there].

But think about this quote too, attributed to Ling Valentine (@LINGsCARS):

“If nobody hates your website, chances are nobody loves it either.”

“I have no idea what I’m doing”

The final talk was from Simon Collison (@colly) and I just can’t do it justice in written form. Listen to the audio and then think about your own life and what you’re doing right now:

This hit home for me: I’m just starting a new job; it’s going to be a challenge – but that’s exactly what I need. As for keeping up with blogs, tweets, magazines, books – I’m drowning. And don’t get me started on the systems I use at work (admittedly not quite as chaotic as the setup Simon describes at Fictive Kin…)

So when does this happen again?

The next MKGN is on 13 June and all 200 tickets “sold out” in just 2 hours (can a free event sell out?!). There’s a waitlist in operation and it’s definitely worth signing up if you’re in the area and you are interested in webby-creative-designer-digital-makery-slightly-geeky-stuff, washed down with a beer or two and followed by pizza! I’ve even met some people there in real life that I only knew on Twitter before…

What do Aston Martin, design, learning styles and digital storytelling have in common? (#MSRN)

Every now and again, I get invited to a fantastic event and, earlier this week, I found myself at a former school (now a “creativity and innovation space”), on one of Britain’s first council estates, in Shoreditch, East London, home of our very own “silicon roundabout”, to discuss research, disruption, invention and innovation.

If time permitted, I could write a dozen blog posts based on the discussions at Microsoft’s Research Now event. Unfortunately, the highlights are all I can deliver right now, but there were many of them…

The art of design

Aston Martin Parking OnlyFirst up, Head of Design at Aston Martin, Marek Reichman (@Design_Dr) gave a fantastic presentation on the iconic brand’s approach to design. Living, as I do, just a few miles from Aston Martin’s spiritual home in Newport Pagnell, I may be a little biased but there are few brands that stir the imagination as much as seven-times bankrupted Aston Martin – which is partly why they have been the coolest brand in the UK for five out of six years (the anomoly being the year that Apple temporarily took the top spot, since reclaimed for 2012/13 with YouTube in second place and Aston Martin in third).

The company’s new headquarters is a modern version of a castle in the middle of England, built from local stone, in a circular shape, with a moat, a drawbridge and narrow windows and signifies how design is integral to the culture of Aston Martin. Even so, Aston’s design studio (the company’s first in house studio, created in 2007) is a separate building with 6m tall windows, joined to the main complex with a glass corridor – an ivory tower in which to design, with transparency so others can see in.

I won’t continue to reproduce Marek’s presentation – I just can’t do it justice – so here are just a few choice words: power; beauty; soul; cool; exclusivity; luxury; creativity; and craftsmanship.

“Coolness” is something that one cannot claim – it has to be bestowed – but Marek Reichman describes it as stylish, innovative, original, authentic, desirable, unique. That’s a great set of adjectives that, for me, perfectly describe Aston Martin.

Design from the boardroom to the shop floor

With the unenviable job of following Marek Reichman’s keynote, Chief Design Officer at the Design Council, Mat Hunter (@mat_hunter) started out by commenting on the relationship between job titles and confidence, mocking has own grand title in comparison to Marek’s understated “Head of Design”. Mat’s presentation was no less engaging as he took us on a journey with:

  • A logistics company that’s seen improved revenues since they started to better communicate what they do through branding and graphic communications.
  • A discussion of form and function with the kettle evolving from a stove-top model to an electric kettle, one with an automatic off switch, to a cordless model, to a stylish model.
  • Disruption through changing meanings – why do we need a kettle? Why not simply have a tap that dispenses hot water for a cup of tea? Or how about the wrist watch, with Swiss craftsmanship commoditised by cheap Japanese digital timepieces, only to be usurped once more by Swatch, who took analogue technology and made it a fashion item? In another example, Streetcar (which became Zipcar and is now owned by Avis) proved that, in some markets, people want access to a car, not necessarily to own one. Then there are concepts like The Amazings – for people to try something old and learn something new.
  • Looking at innovation, Mat described the “double diamond” design process where we use the left side to redefine the brief before finding new solutions to a problem. Examples include: the Mailbox app which is aiming for a a clean mailbox and using a queuing system to manage demand [only time will tell how successful that is – I’ve lost interest already]; Casserole Club which uses the social web to connect people and provide peer to peer “meals on wheels”; The Matter which gives young people work experience and drives a better quality of output by involving them in local planning and decision-making; and even the Government Digital Service, aiming to transform the way in which the UK government provides online services with a set of human-centred design principles, integration, board-level leadership (and recruiting the best people).

Design-led transformation and innovation

In the next slot, Microsoft Consultants Fred Warren and Phillip Joe spoke about why and how to innovate using design. I really need to take another look at the slide deck to properly understand what was presented as we jumped from anecdotes such as Virgin Atlantic’s redefinition of transatlantic flight by “reframing the experience” in Upper Class, getting travellers from A to B (not Heathrow to JFK) and removing friction points to Pine and Gilmore’s Experience Economy and on to customer experience evolution but I got the impression Fred’s part of the presentation (the “why?”) could be summed up as “step back and look at the problem from a different angle” – and “don’t die hesitating”.

Phillip spoke about the “how?” with four themes of orchestration (guide the vision), envisioning (explore scenarios and define visual and textual narratives), empathy (understand what users want), and execution (take the vision and make it real – which parts of the narrative will be built out).

To be perfectly honest, this was the session that I didn’t really get. Maybe I was tired. Or maybe the previous presenters had given me so much food for thought my brain needed time to adjust… but the basic premise is sound: finding out what the problems are, rather than offering solutions right away (although isn’t that just what consultants do?).

Organisational DNA

This slot was the surprise for me. A real gem. Strategic People and Organisation Development Consultant, Elizabeth Greetham gave a talk on getting an organisation culture aligned for innovation. The concepts that Elizabeth visited are not new, but it’s good to re-visit them.

Honey and Mumford’s learning styles are a cycle of learning by doing (activists, jumping in at the deep end), reflecting (think and observe), theorising (through models) and trying out (pragmatists, starting in a safe environment). Often we skip the reflection, eradicating the time to think creatively, which in turn stifles innovation.  Meanwhile activist-pragmatists skip the theory, which can be valuable to re-engage with from time to time.

Moving on to perception and memory processing, Elizabeth spoke of four learning strategies:

  • Visual (pictures, written word).
  • Auditory (spoken word).
  • Kinaesthetic (actions and movement).
  • Tactile (touch).

Whilst visual and auditory learning are well understood (e.g. leading to success of PowerPoint) kinaesthetic learning is about doing, reaching, feeling. Restricting people to one screen limits this – the movement is important (mind maps can help). So does hot-desking – some people need their own space. The implications of touch are still being explored and, whilst it’s discouraged in the workplace there are some benefits that have been discovered through work with autistic children.

On cognitive styles, Elizabeth described two types:

  • Verbal-imagery: words vs. pictures (not everyone’s brain creates images – sometimes they need to be provided)
  • Wholist-analytic: global vs. components (some people need the big picture and to know what comes before and after their part vs. individual widgets in detail); another way to look at this is breadth first vs. depth first.

The psychological contract is about the perceptions between an employer and an employee about their obligations to one another – more than just a written contract of employment. Promises are often made or implied, e.g. during recruitment, in appraisals, at a social event, when travelling together – and we shouldn’t make promises that are not in our gift to deliver.

Elizabeth then spoke of the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types, before highlighting that intimacy is key to success – for every person in an organisation, someone else needs to know what makes them tick. Organisations need a structure that supports this; small working groups enable people to get to know one another much better.

In summary, “well it’s how we do things around here” is made up of people, how they learn, the psychological contract status, and personality factors. And that, is the organisational DNA.

Design in the digital physical world

In his presentation, Principal Interaction Designer at Microsoft Research, Richard Banks (@rbanks) explained some of the ideas he’s been working on for digital storytelling. His team’s ethnographic work is a combination of social science, computer science and interaction design; they look at people, see how they work, spot anecdotes about life – and spark ideas for things that can be designed. Specifically, Richard talked about the theme of the future of looking back: creating new value from reflecting on the past.

For example, on inheriting his late grandfather’s box of photos, Richard discovered they had been recorded with “metadata” (names written on the back). But with most of  us creating thousands of digital images each year, that’s a lot to pass on when our time comes.

Technology has moved past the point where it’s a play thing, it’s now an integral part of our lives and we need to deal with death on social media too. We all have boxes of sentimental objects that we don’t keep on display. The question is whether digital artefacts be sentimental too? To take another example, old diaries provide an insight into others’ lives – even if the points recorded seem mundane at the time. May be our tweets will be the same some day?

Richard showed pictures of physical items created to store digital artifacts, such as:

  • A box to backup your tweets.
  • A digital slide viewer which backs up Flickr images into a box that looks like an old Boots slide viewer.
  • A digital photo display focused on one individual containing events throughout their life structured on a timeline [à la Facebook] providing the context for where things fit.

Another interesting angle is the motivation behind digital storytelling, perhaps just creating a record for a sense of permanence – not necessarily interesting now but it may be later. And then there are the new possibilities afforded by digital media – such as putting two people into a picture that could have been together, but were not (e.g. a grandfather and grandson when one had passed away before the other was born). I’m currently taking something in the region of 10-12,000 pictures a year and I have hundreds of slides in the loft inherited from my late Father. It’s high time I took a good look at my own digital curation and storytelling…

Envisioning the future

Microsoft Chief Envisioning Officer, Dave Coplin (@dcoplin) gave the final talk before the inevitable panel session to wrap-up the day. I’ve blogged about Dave’s talks before – fast paced and highly entertaining. The twist this time around was to ask the question “What can you change in your business that you do because you’ve always done it?”. See the big picture. Avoid the arrogance of the present. Look for outcomes, not process. Set your people and your data free. Fundamentally, think human, be human. And empower others.

Conclusion

It’s been a while since I attended a Microsoft event that was as thought-provoking as this one. Most of the company’s output is pure marketing but this was a refreshing change; enabling others to lead the conversation, facilitating discussion, and leading thoughts without the distraction of a product pitch.  For this reason alone, congratulations are due to the Microsoft UK Enterprise Insights team (@MicrosoftEntUK), who hosted the day. Add in the first-class speaker line-up and it was well worth it.

As for takeaways, well, I’ve written many of them in this post but, whilst design is not at the core of my work, it can help me to think about things differently and the organisational DNA talk has given me plenty to consider as I plan for building my own team inside the organisation where I work.

Tour of Britain photo shoot

The rest of Team Sky (3)

Today, I’m not at work. In fact, as you read this, I should be starting to make my way back from North Yorkshire after a long weekend of photography (heavy rain/floods permitting).  It all started a few years ago when my long-suffering wife suggested that, instead of hijacking our family holidays and leaving her on her own in a cottage (without power on one memorable occasion) whilst I go out to take pictures, I should have a couple of dedicated weekends a year instead. So, that’s what I’ve be doing this weekend!

Getting read for my jaunt to Whitby, the surrounding coast and the North Yorkshire Moors reminded me of my last photography outing – a trip to watch the Welsh stage of the Tour of Britain a couple of weeks ago.  I contemplated trying to catch the race in two places but, in the end, decided that Welsh roads, traffic and weather were likely to conspire against me getting ahead of the peloton so, after a quick location scout on an already-crowded Caerphilly Mountain, I took up position back in the town, sitting on a street sign, on the last corner before the finish line, in a spot where I should see the riders come past me twice.

"This is the line..."I was amazed at how close to the action it’s possible to get with the Tour of Britain. Back in the mid-90s I went to watch some stages of the Network Q RAC Rally and could literally stand on the side of a forest track half way up a mountain as cars shot past at very high speed but I imagine these days “health and safety” have taken over and it must be a lot more controlled. The last kilometre of the cycling has barriers for crowd control but with two loops of Caerphilly Mountain inside towards the end of the race the crowds were up there, rather than in town. I later saw from the television pictures that the mountain spectators were all over the road, right up to the riders, shouting encouragement, just like on a stage of the Tour de France or Vuelta a España – very un-British and fantastic to see.

I know we’ve had an amazingly successful summer of cycling here in the UK with the Team Sky/Bradley Wiggins Tour de France success, followed by the Olympics (road and track) and even a fourth place for Chris Froome in the Vuelta but it was great to see so many people out for the Tour of Britain. Sadly, Wiggo pulled out of the Tour that day and mountains were never going to lead to a strong finish for Cav (his last few days in the rainbow Jersey) but it was great to see another Brit in the shape of Jonathan Tiernan-Locke take the Gold jersey (before he went on to win the Tour two days later).Matt Stephens  After the presentations, I could (almost) get to the Team Sky bus (the “Death Star”), could definitely get close to the other teams, and even managed to say hello to Matt Stephens (Race Controller and TV Presenter). Unlike some sports, it seems that the stars of professional road race cycling are still (reasonably) accessible for the fans.

My #ToB2012 in numbers: stage 6; 405m/8h15 travel; 3h wait; 2 cameras; 621 images/1 video to edit; 1 autograph :-) Thanks @
@markwilsonit
Mark Wilson

Although my wife thought I was mad to drive to Wales and wait around for hours to take some pics of blokes on bikes zooming past, I had a great day out.  Here are a selection of the images from that day – and I’ll be back at my desk and blogging again later in the week, hopefully with a load more pictures to share.