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!

Bose Soundlink Mini II speakers turn off at low volume levels

Listening to music a couple of nights ago (streamed from Spotify on my MacBook, though I’m not sure how relevant that is), I found that my Bose SoundLink Mini II speakers kept turning off after 5 minutes (running on battery power, connected with a cable). Spotify kept playing but the sound stopped until I turned the speakers off/on again.

I hadn’t seen this issue before – and I was using the same 3.5mm AUX cable setup that I often use with our small TV (to improve its sound quality), so I hit the interwebs to see what I could find…

Some hunting around suggests that the issue may have been the low volume level on my MacBook (I was in the room directly under my youngest son’s bedroom, after bedtime).

“The Speaker does have a power-save mode, but it will generally only enter this when no audio is detected. The most likely explanation here is that the speaker is getting a very weak signal […] and boosting it enormously with its internal amp.

[…]
If you are using a headphone jack or similar […], try increasing the […] output level while turning the speaker’s volume down. This should provide a stronger signal on the AUX port which would prevent the speaker from sleeping automatically.”

Sure enough, increasing the volume on the MacBook to around level 4-5 and decreasing the volume on the speakers seems to stop the power-down. Indeed, to make sure this was the case, I turned the MacBook’s volume back down to 1 and waited for the music to cut out… then, when it did, I just increased the volume to around level 4-5 again and the speakers came alive!

On a related note… I stumbled across these Spotify tips and tricks that might be useful…

The curious case of the Spotify squatter

Yesterday, I was playing music on Spotify and it kept stopping because someone else was using my account… that’s not an uncommon occurrence as my kids are often using it but I didn’t think they were this time. After the usual squabble over “Play it here”, Nno, play it here”, “No. Play. It. Here.”, I managed to listen to the tracks I wanted to hear.

Then, this morning, I tried to sync some music to my Spotify account, only to find that my iPhone told me Spotify was being used on a complete stranger’s Phone!

One quick password change later and I was sure no-one else was using it. I later removed all devices from my account and re-added them, just for good measure.

Later in the day though, I noticed that all of my playlists were missing. I also saw that my activity stream showed a lot of music that I hadn’t listened to:

These are not my songs!

Someone else has definitely been using my account. Or at least that’s what Spotify thinks!

I could live with the account activity but missing playlists were a big concern. Luckily, Spotify support pointed me to a link to recover playlists where, sure enough, I saw they had been deleted yesterday! It took a few visits to that link before all of my playlists were located and recovered but I seem to be back to where I was before the mix-up.

Now, I don’t think that Spotify has been compromised – if someone had hijacked my account they would have changed my password and locked me out, surely? But I do suspect a database corruption. Spotify aren’t admitting anything is up, of course… but my trust in the service has been severely damaged.

The benefits of IP TV in my living room

Our living rooms have become a battlefield: Microsoft, Apple and Google each want to control our entertainment experiences, integrating TV, PC, smartphone (and games consoles); then consider Samsung, Sony and the other consumer electronics giants – all of whom want a slice of the digital media consumption cake – there’s certainly a lot at stake as existing media consumption models start to crumble and new business models are established.

Until fairly recently, I was resisting any temptation to bring more technology into the living room, especially as my “black loud crap” (19″ hi-fi separates to you and I) was banished when Mrs W and I became an item all those years ago. I’m not much of a gamer but I do have an Xbox 360, which also doubles as quite a decent DVD player/media hub (especially since the BBC released iPlayer on Xbox). We don’t have a BlueRay player, I think 3D TV is a gimmick and music is on an old iPod, hooked up to some speakers in our garden room, served up from Spotify on my phone/PC/iPad, or streamed from a iTunes/Spotify on a Mac using an Apple Airport Express. All very 2005.

But then I bought a new television.

Much to my surprise, the SmartTV capabilities on the new telly impressed my wife (who saw the potential for the kids accessing the CBeebies website, etc. from the TV, still under our control) as the Samsung rep took us through the motions in a local Currys/PC World store (by co-incidence, the same rep was working in John Lewis, where we actually bought the TV, a week or so later). I wasn’t sure how much we’d use other apps, but having BBC iPlayer, and to a lesser extent ITV Player (hopefully to soon be joined by 4oD and Demand5), running directly from the TV has real benefit.

Since finding that the Wi-Fi connection in my living room wasn’t up to the task, and putting in a HomePlug Ethernet solution from PowerEthernet, I’ve become more and more convinced that IP TV is the way forward. Catching up with the latest BBC natural history series, Africa, with my kids a couple of evenings ago I was streaming BBC iPlayer content in high definition without a hiccup. When the PVR failed to record a critical episode from Masterchef: The Professionals, our TV’s YouTube app came to the rescue. And, over the weekend, I decided that watching Vimeo on my computer screen was too restrictive, so I connected the Vimeo app on the TV to my account and started to surf through my “Watch Later” list. That’s more like it! New apps seem to be coming all the time – Spotify was a recent addition, as was TED (only a few days ago).

Of course, I can access the same content on a tablet, or a smartphone, or a PC – but the television is still the focal point of our living room and, by integrating my online video consumption into the broadcast mix, it’s suddenly a lot more convenient. I haven’t even started to consider the possibilities of streaming music, photos and video from the computers in the house although a neighbour did drop by to test his XBMC configuration on my TV before he commits to purchasing, and plugging a USB flash drive into the TV to look at some photos/home videos is certainly very convenient.

In less than two months I’ve gone from “there’s nothing wrong with my old Sony Trinitron” to “what, no high definition?” and “I’m sure we can stream from the Internet”.  Something else has changed too: whilst the majority of our TV content still comes from the BBC, or Channel 4, I’m watching more stuff from the ‘net – whether it’s Vimeo, YouTube, TED, the Red Bull Channel, or the BBC Sport app (which, incidentally, showed a great video of [Sir] Bradley Wiggins performing The Jam’s That’s Entertainment at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year after-show party).

For a long time I’ve heard talk of IP (Internet Protocol) taking over from broadcast TV. Now, it seems, this may actually have become a reality…

Streaming Spotify to remote speakers using Airfoil

Much of the music I play these days comes from Spotify but there are times when I’d really like to stream my music to some speakers on the other side of the house that are plugged into an Apple Airport Express.

A few months ago I found out how to do this, using a nifty piece of software from Rogue Amoeba, called Airfoil.  For just $25, Airfoil will stream audio to other Macs and PCs running the Airfoil Speakers companion app or to an Airport Express, Apple TV or other supported receivers.

I did find a few gotchas along the way though:

  • Airfoil will only recognise the same devices as iTunes and iTunes will recognise the same Airport Express as AirPort Utility. It took several reboots to get AirPort Utility to recognise my Airport Express (although things seem to have settled down since).
  • When adjusting the volume/pause/play etc. there is a short delay before the changes take effect (due to latency in the network) – so this is unlikely to work for live DJing (it was fine for my 40th birthday party a few months ago though!).
  • Spotify has a nasty habit of duplicating itself when it upgrades, leaving a copy in ~/Applications as well as in /Applications.  To resolve this, delete the old version of Spotify in /Applications and move the new version from ~/Applications to /Applications. Restart Spotify and Airfoil should, once again, be happy to take Spotify as a source application.  This has happened several times now, each time Spotify release a new client app although it could be a side effect of me running as a Standard User and not an Administrator (as all users should!).