Tag Archives: Useful websites

Technology

Messing around with maps

Over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself making quite a few conversions of maps between different formats, for different uses (mostly cycling-related).  The things I’ve found might, or might not, be useful to others… so I’m writing them down anyway!

Firstly, I wanted to see what the profile of a route was like. I had a GPX file for the route and used the excellent GPS Visualizer site to create an elevation profile.  And then quickly decided it had far too many bumps!

Next up, one of my fellow riders wanted to be able to view the route in Google Maps (not Google Earth).  This wasn’t quite as straightforward but, again GPS Visualizer comes to the rescue. Using that site, it’s possible to convert to a KML file that Google Maps can work with.  Unfortunately, the “new” Google Maps doesn’t have an import option so you need to switch back to the “classic” Google Maps (it might be enough to use this version of the URI: https://www.google.com/maps?output=classic), after which you can use the Google Maps Engine to create a map (like this one, which was stage 1 of my recent London to Paris ride):

Finally, I bought a Garmin Edge 810 (cycle computer).  After months of saying “I don’t need a Garmin, I have Strava on my iPhone”), I gave in.  And I’ve been pretty glad of it too – already it’s been great to monitor my stats as I climbed Holme Moss last week (does 98% maximum heart rate mean I’m 2% off a heart attack? </joke>) and last weekend I decided I was 20-odd miles from home and bored of my ride, so the sat-nav could show me the best way back to my starting point (even if it did mean cycling along some trunk routes…). Added to that, Mrs W has been glad to track my rides using the Garmin 810′s Live Tracking (although it didn’t work last time I was out…).

The Garmin comes with “base maps” but these are really just the main roads.  As they’re probably not the ones you want to use for cycling, it’s handy to load on some more detail. Ordnance Survey 1:50K maps (GB Discoverer) may be great (the 3D view in particular) but at a penny shy of £200 I wasn’t prepared to pay that much, with Open Street Maps available for free.  ScarletFire Cycling has made a video with an interesting comparison of the OSM and OS map options:

Downloading the Open Street Maps to a Garmin Edge 705/800/810 is brilliantly described by DC Rainmaker and Forgot has a write-up for getting turn-by-turn navigation working on the Edge 800, as does ScarletFire.  It can take a couple of days for the maps to be generated though and I did find a direct download link with maps that had been generated fairly recently (July 2013), so I used that.

Technology

Improving performance; managing expectations; being responsive; work in progress; and fear, uncertainty and doubt (#MKGN)

I can’t believe that the quarterly Milton Keynes Geek Night is nearly upon us again. I usually try to blog about the evening but I’ve failed spectacularly on recent attempts.  I might fail again with this week’s MKGN – not because I’m slow to get a blog post up but because the tickets “sold” out in something crazy like 2 minutes…

September’s Geek Night was up to the usual high standard (including the return of David Hughes – seems you can’t escape that easily!) but included one talk in particular that stood out above all of the others, when Ben Foxall (@BenjaminBenBen) showed us (literally) the other side of responsiveness… but we’ll come back to that in a moment.

Back to front performance

First up was Drew McLellan (@DrewM)’s take on “back to front” performance. You can catch the whole talk on Soundcloud but for me, as someone who runs a fairly shoddy WordPress site, it got me thinking about how performance is not just about optimising the user experience but also about the back end – perhaps summed up in one of the first points that Drew made:

“Website performance is about how your site feels.”

That may be obvious but how many times have you heard people taking about optimisation of one part of a site in isolation, without considering the whole picture.  As Drew highlighted, performance is a feature to build in – not a problem to fix – and it’s also factored into search engine algorithms.

Whilst many performance gains can be found by optimising the “front-end” (i.e. Browser-side), there are some “back-end” changes that should be considered – sites need to be super-fast under normal load in order to be responsive under heavy load (quite simply, simultaneous requests affect responsiveness – they use memory and the quicker you can process pages and release memory, the better!).

First up, consider hosting. Drew’s advice was:

  • Cheap hosting is expensive (shared hosting is cheap for a reason).
  • Shared hosting is the worst (rarely fast) – think about a virtualised or dedicated server solution instead.  Constrain by CPU, then RAM, not disk space (that should be a red flag – it’s cheap, if not much is allocated it shows lots of people crammed on a server).
  • Consider what your project has cost to build when buying hosting! Use the best you can afford – and if they advertise with scantily clad ladies, they’re probably not very good (or to be encouraged)

Next, the content management system (CMS), where Drew says:

  • Think about the cost of external resources (going to database or web API, for example). Often these are necessary costs but can be reduced with careful architecture.
  • Employ DRY coding (don’t repeat yourself) – make sure everything only has a single representation in code. Do things once, cache and reuse (unless you expect different results). For example, if something doesn’t change often (e.g. post count by category on a blog), don’t calculate this on every page serve – instead consider calculating when adding/removing a post or category (called denormalisation in database terms)… be smart – consider how real-time is the data? And are people making decisions using this data?
  • Do the work once – “premature optimization is the root of all evil” is actually a quote from 1974, when line-by-line optimisation was necessary.  Focus on the bottlenecks: “premature” should not be confused with “early” – if you know something will be a bottleneck, optimisation is not premature, it’s sensible.
  • Some frameworks focus on convention over configuration (code works things out, reduces developer decisions) – can lead to non-DRY code – so let’s make programming fun and allow the developer to work out the best way instead of burning CPU cycles.  “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.
  • The Varnish caching HTTP reverse proxy may be something to consider to speed up web site (unfortunately Drew ran out of time to tell us more – and my hosting provided found it caused problems for some other customers, so had to remove it after giving it a try for me)

In summary, Drew told us to care about front end optimisation; be careful about setting cookies and serve assets from cookieless domains; be smart about server headers; use CDNs to outsource traffic; GZip content; JavaScript at bottom of page and minimise it; test with PageSpeed and YSlow; ignore bits that make no sense for responsive web design.  But, importantly, don’t forget the back end – hosting, CMS, stay dry (do it once), a few minutes configuring up front saves wasted time later, and optimise early. In short – front end performance can’t make up for slow servers!


Related reading: check out Kier Whitaker (@KierWhitaker)’s  adventures with Google Page Speed in my write-up from MK Geek Night 4

Managing client expectations

The first of the five-minute talks was from Christian Senior (@senoir – note the spelling of the Twitter handle, it’s senoir not senior!).  Christian spoke about managing client expectations.  Whilst my notes from Christian’s talk are pretty brief (it was only 5 minutes after all) it certainly struck a chord, even with an infrastructure guy like me.

Often, the difficult part is getting a client to understand what they are getting for their money (“after all, how hard can it really be?”, they ask!) – but key to that is understanding the customer’s requirements and making sure that’s what your service delivers.  Right from the first encounter, find out about the customer (not just who they are, what want, how much money they will spend – but browsers, devices available, etc.) and try to include that detail in a brief – the small things count too and can be deliverables (incidentally, it can be just as important to distinguish the non-deliverables as the deliverables). Most of all, don’t take things for granted.  My favourite point of the talk though, was “talk to customers in a language they understand!”:

<style>
.jargon {expression:blank;}
</style>

Or, to put it another way:

“Work in code, not talk in code!”

The other side of responsive

As I mentioned in my introduction, Ben Foxall (@BenjaminBenBen)’s five minute talk on “the other side” of responsive design was nothing short of stunning. If I ever manage to deliver a presentation that’s half as innovative as this, I’ll be a happy man.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can do it justice in words but, as we know from Sarah Parmenter (@Sazzy)’s talk at MK Geek Night 5, responsive websites provide the same content, constructed in different ways to serve to multiple devices appropriately.

  • Ben got us all to go to a site, which reacted according to our devices.
  • He then showed how the site responded differently on a phone or a PC – choose a file from a PC, or take a photo on a phone.
  • He tweeted that photo.
  • He showed us the device capabilities (i.e. the available APIs).
  • He updated his “slides” (in HTML5, of course), interactively.
  • And projected those slides in our browsers (via the link we all blindly clicked).

Actually – Ben did so much more than that. And thankfully he blogged about what he did and how he did it – I recommend you go take a look.

In summary, Ben wrapped up by saying that “responsiveness and the web needs to use the capabilities of all the devices and push the boundaries to do interesting things”.  If only more “responsive” designers pushed those boundaries…

One last thought on this topic (from Brad Frost, via Ben Foxall’s MK Geek Night talk), is contained in these three images (provided under a Creative Commons attribution license):

  

Work in progress

Following Ben’s talk was always going to be a tough gig.  I’m not sure that I really grokked Tom Underhill (@imeatingworms)’s “Work in Progress” although the gist seemed to be that technology gallops on and that we’re in a state of constant evolution with new tools, programs, apps, books, articles, courses, posts, people to follow (or not follow), etc., etc.

Whilst the fundamentals of human behaviour haven’t changed, what’s going on around us have – now we need more than just food and warmth – we “need” desktops, laptops, smartphones, pink smartphones, smart watches.  Who knows what’s in the future in a world of continued change…

Constant change is guaranteed – in technology, social context and more. Tech is a great enabler, it could be seen as essential – but should never replace the message. Brands, experiences and products change lives based on the fundamentals of need.

Hmm…

Interlude

The one minute talks were the usual mixed bag of shout-outs for jobs at various local agencies (anyone want to employ an ex-infrastructure architect who manages a team and really would like to do something exciting again… maybe something “webby”?), Code Club, the first meeting of Leamington Geeks, and upcoming conferences.

Fear, uncertainty and doubt

The final keynote was from Paul Robert Lloyd (@paulrobertlloyd), speaking on FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt. Paul makes the point that these are all real human emotions – and asks what the consequences of abusing them are. He suggests that the web has been hijacked by commercial interests – not only monitoring behaviour but manipulating it too.

Some of the highlights from Paul’s talk make quite a reading list (one that I have in Pocket and will hopefully get around to one day):

  • Jonathan Harris’ modern medicine considers the ethical implications of software. Even a default setting can affect the daily behaviours of thousands of people.  Facebook asks its designers about the “Serotonin” of new features – i.e. how will it affect how we behave.
  • As the web is largely unregulated, it’s attractive to those who want to increase their personal wealth; so we have to be optimistic that there are enough people working in the tech sector with a moral compass. Arguably, the Snowden leaks show that some people have integrity and courage. But Paul is uncertain that Silicon Valley is healthy – “normal” people don’t see customers as data points against which to test designs – for example a team at Google couldn’t decide on shade of blue so they tested 41 shades (and border widths). Paul also made the point that the team was working under Marissa Mayer – for a more recent example witness the Yahoo! logo changes…
  • Then there are the “evil” social networks where, as Charles Stross highlights, “Klout operates under American privacy law, or rather, the lack of it”.
  • Paul says that The Valley operates in a bubble – and that Americans (or at least startups) skew to the workaholic side of things, viewing weekends off as a privilege not a right. He also suggests that the problem is partly a lack of diversity – The Valley is basically a bunch of Stanford guys making things to fix their own problems. Very few start from a social problem and work backwards – so very few are enhancing society; they’re making widgets or enhancing what already exists. Funding can be an issue but governments are seeing the tech sector as an area of rapid growth and it’s probably good not to be aligned to a sector where you can launch start-ups without a business case!
  • Lanyrd shows that it is possible to start up outside The Valley (although they have been bought by Eventbrite so have to move) [TweetDeck is another example, although bought by Twitter] but Silicon Valley arrived by a series of happy accidents and good luck/fortune – it’s important that the new tech hubs shouldn’t be a facsimile of this.
  • We trust Yahoo! by putting photos on Flickr but they also have form for removing content (e.g. Geocities) – but what happens when your service is closed down? Is there something morally wrong with closing sites containing thousands of hours of individuals’ comments, posts, etc.? Shouldn’t we treat data like it matters, allow export capabilities and support data rescue?
  • Then there’s protecting out data from Governments. Although conducted before the Snowden leaks the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s annual survey asks “who has your back?” - and, although it’s still young, it seems companies are starting to take notice.
  • Choose your services wisely – we (the geeks) are early adopters – and we can stop using social networks too.  It’s easier to change services if data can be exported – but all too often that’s not the case so you need to own your own content.
  • We all have the power to change the web to the way we want to see it, says Paul – all we need is need a text editor, an FTP client and some webspace. In the wake of the NSA revelations, Bruce Schneier writes in the Guardian how those who love liberty have to fix the ‘net.

Paul’s slides are available on Speaker Deck.

So, what’s next?

MK Geek night #7 is on Thursday 5 December featuring:

together with five minute features from:


Even if I don’t manage to get there (or if I do and am a bit slow blogging) you can find out more on the MK Geek Night website on Twitter (@MKGeekNight), or Soundcloud (on the MKGN stream).

Related reading: James Bavington has another write-up of MKGN #6.

[Update 7 December 2013: Added links to Paul Robert Lloyd's slides and to James Bavington's post]

Technology

Fixing Feedly

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about switching to Feedly from Google Reader. Since then, Google has switched off Reader – and my feeds went AWOL in the process.

Thankfully, Feedly are taking the issue seriously (I was amazed to get a tweet back from them after I tweeted a picture of their “over capacity” screen)

Even before then, I’d found the answer to the missing feeds on the Feedly blog. Until 15 July 2013, it’s possible to use Google Takeout to export the data that was previously held in Reader – so get in there quickly if you want to export your feeds. Once I’d imported the OPML Feedly was happy – at least on the web.

And that overloaded error in the iOS app? A temporary glitch caused by some Google code changes – as soon as Apple let’s the updated app into their store (Android is already sorted), that should be good too.

Technology

Shopping around for a smartphone? Have you considered buying second hand?

It used to be said that nobody got fired for buying IBM. These days it seems to be that, for non-geek consumers at least, the common denominator is iOS.

Now, before the Android and Windows Phone fans (Blackberry fans, anybody?) start flaming, let me explain…

My wife is not what you would call one of technology’s early adopters. To call her a laggard would be unkind but she only took her first tentative steps into social media last year and getting a smartphone was a big deal…

I consider iPhones to be overpriced but as I’ve never owned an Android phone I couldn’t really advise on alternatives. We did spend some time looking around in Carphone Warehouse but I had to leave Mrs W to it for fear of what I might say when the salesperson’s ill-informed “advice” got too much.

Android? Windows?

We liked the look of the HTC One X, but Mrs W was put off by some reviews on the ‘net (moral, never read reviews from non-tech writers…); some of the Samsungs looked OK too but whilst the form factor may have worked for my “man hands”, those of a daintier persuasion may find a large screen just a little too… large.

Indeed, far from helping my wife to choose a mid-priced Android handset, the experience actually swayed her towards the iPhone. I might have said take a look at Windows Phone 8 but my experience with Windows Phone 7.x has left me with little more than apathy for that platform (give me time, maybe I’ll be back in a couple of years if and when it finally takes off).

iPhone?

So, why not get an iPhone? After all, most of her friends have one. I’ve had one since the UK launch, either for personal use or for work. And “my” iPad seems to have become the family iPad now. I guess that means we’re pretty much an iOS household already.

But I still baulked at the price.

Buying second hand

Then, one of our friends mentioned smartfonestore.com. After waiting a few weeks for stock to come in, I managed to pick up a 16GB SIM-unlocked iPhone 4S for around £265, in mint (grade A) condition. Two days later and I had an SMS from Mrs W. saying how she loved her iPhone (yes, “love” was the emotion expressed by this non-geek consumer).

Ever since then, I’ve been admiring the 4S from afar, trying to convince myself that my Lumia 800 was better and that I could make do with the company-supplied 3GS. I tried to get myself another Grade A iPhone 4S but then, in a moment of weakness, I jumped for a Grade B condition unit instead. To be honest, when it arrived last Saturday, I couldn’t tell the difference!

SmartfoneStore send out the phones in their own packaging and both the iPhones I’ve purchased both came with a USB-dock cable and a SIM extraction tool. Mine also came with a screen protector and a bumper (although it’s not the Apple version, and not a great fit). I’ve yet to use the other side of the business (fonebank.com) but it may well be the destination for recycling my Lumia 800).

So now, we really are an iOS family. A 3GS, two 4Ss and an iPad.

(OK, so technically the 3GS is not mine – and I am considering replacing that with a cheap HTC Desire so that I can have a play with Android - but there are plenty of iDevices to go around…)

I’ve been impressed by SmartfoneStore (and remember, they were recommended to us by a friend too) so, if you’re in the market for a second-hand smartphone, they might be worth a look. Unfortunately there is no waiting list for a particular model to come into stock but you can register for notifications and soon enough, you should find something that suits for a lot less than the cost of a new handset.

Technology

Useful links posts – where to go now

At the end of 2012, I said I would stop creating the monthly “useful links” posts that I’ve been collating for the last few years.  The information is still available – it’s just not in a blog post – the place to look is my Delicious feed (or via Twitter @markwilsonit, prefixed [delicious]).

Technology

Short takes: cyber security; stock images; PowerPoint presenter view; smart TVs, iPads and YouTube

Lots of ideas for blog posts this week but limited time to commit pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard for that matter. Here are the highlights of what might have been…

Cyber security

Last year, I assisted one of the lecturers at University College London (UCL) with some “expert” opinion on the bring your own device phenomenon, for a module as part of the MSc course in Human Computer Interaction. It seemed to go reasonably well and I was invited back to speak on this year’s topic – cyber security.  I can’t claim to be an expert, but I could present some supplier-side views on the UK Government’s “10 steps to cyber security” advice which seems very sensible but is also based on aspirational and tactical solutions which could be costly to implement in full, so need to be considered with an understanding of the relative risks and an eye to the future.

For anyone who’s interested, my presentation is available for viewing/download on SlideShare, although it’s very visual – full narrative is available in the notes.

 

Searching for good images

I’m a fan of full-page images on slides and limited text. I find it keeps the audience engaged and listening to the presenter, rather than reading pages of bullet points.  The down side is that it can be very time consuming to find the right images, especially without access to an account at a good stock library.

As my presentation to UCL was as in individual, not representing my employer, I was able to use images licensed for non-commercial use under Creative Commons and Compfight is a great tool for searching Flickr for these.  I’ve attributed all of the photographers used in the deck above, and if you don’t have access to iStockPhoto, Fotolia, etc. then this can be a good way to find images.

PowerPoint Presenter View

I’ve blogged before about PowerPoint’s presenter view and I’m amazed that more people don’t use it (although, the people who don’t are generally fans of dull corporate decks with lots of bullet points – yawn!). Somehow though, my PC had reverted to not using it, and I needed to Google to find where the option is in the PowerPoint 2007/2010 ribbon!  In the end, it was this Cybernet New post that showed me the important option: on the Slide Show tab, in the Monitors section.

YouTube smart TV and mobile apps

I wanted to re-watch a presentation that I’d missed last year and that I knew was on YouTube. Given that it was nearly an hour long, I thought the comfort of my living room would be a good place to do this, using the YouTube app on my smart TV. It was. At least until I lost the stream part way through and the Samsung YouTube app refused to play ball with the fast forward control. Another annoyance was that the “Watch Later” functionality in YouTube isn’t recognised by the a-little-bit-dumb app on the “smart” TV, so I needed to add the video to another playlist first.

Eventually, I finished up watching the second half of the video on my iPad. Here, again, it’s useful to know that the built-in iOS YouTube app is feature light and that there is a newer version available from Google in Apple’s AppStore.

Technology

Formulas shown in Excel, instead of their results

Every month or so, I have to create a report which is extracted from SharePoint to Excel, and then a couple of extra columns are added with information required by a colleague. The additional columns simply present existing information in a different format but, for some reason, after pasting in these formulae (which are just nested IF statements combined with some string handling functions), the formula is shown instead of the calculated result:

=IF(LEFT(L2,1)="A","Application",(IF(LEFT(L2,1)="B","Business",(IF(LEFT(L2,1)="I","Infrastructure","Error")))))
=LEFT(L2,1)&":"&RIGHT(LEFT(L2,SEARCH(">",L2,30)-2),LEN(LEFT(L2,SEARCH(">",L2,30)-2))-SEARCH(">",LEFT(L2,SEARCH(">",L2,30)-2)))

Last month, whilst troubleshooting the issue, I stumbled across a great blog post from Excel MVP, Purna Duggirala (aka Chandoo), entitled “Excel Formulas are not working?!? What to do when all you see is the formula, not result“. Today, I needed to find it again, so I thought I’d blog it this time!

Chandoo’s post lists a number of causes for this issue – mine was a simple issue of cell formatting – after pasting my formula into a new column, the cell is formatted as Text.  Switching the cell format to General, and editing the formula (no changes required, just F2 to edit, then Enter to commit), results in a calculation. Even better, Excel 2010 auto-fills and calculates the following rows for me!

The blog at Chandoo.org (tagline, “Become awesome at Excel”!) is packed with Excel advice and is definitely one to remember next time I’m having problems (or just want to do something a bit different in a spreadsheet).

Photography Technology

Useful links: December 2012

A list of items I’ve come across recently that I found potentially useful, interesting, or just plain funny:

After several years of monthly “useful links” posts, I’ve decided that this will be the last one – the plugin I use to read from my Delicious account and generate the post stopped working a few months ago, and the useful links can also be found directly (on my Delicious feed) or via Twitter (@markwilsonit, prefixed [delicious])

Technology

Useful links: November 2012

A list of items I’ve come across recently that I found potentially useful, interesting, or just plain funny:

Technology

Useful Links: September 2012

A list of items I’ve come across recently that I found potentially useful, interesting, or just plain funny:

  • Rubular – Ruby regular expression editor and tester (via Kristian Brimble)
  • Classic Shell for Windows – Expose hidden features in modern Windows versions (via Scott Hanselman)
  • Traveline NextBuses – Useful mobile website for searching bus timetables
  • Baking Pi – Free operating systems development course for the Raspberry Pi
%d bloggers like this: