Running the Pixlr Editor (or other Adobe Flash-based apps) in a modern browser

Many people will be familiar with the Pixlr browser-based image editing tool, Pixlr Editor. Unfortunately, it’s developed in Adobe Flash, a technology that’s rapidly falling out of favour with developers (about time too!) and losing browser support.

A few weeks ago, I tried to run Pixlr Editor in Chrome and found it wouldn’t work. Same for Safari. Edge gave a similar experience – in fact only Internet Explorer would play nicely!

Then I found Paulo Amaroso’s Google+ post about the issue (yes, Google+!). It seems that what I needed to do was click on the “omnibar” (the secure padlock or info button to the left of the URL in the browser) to open up Chrome settings and select Flash then Always allow on this site.

Interestingly, I’m now seeing browsers prompting me to enable Flash for the website… I suspect Pixlr have updated their website to improve the user experience.

Allow Flash for pixlr editor website in Chrome

Adopting cloud services means being ready for constant change

There’s a news story today about how Microsoft may be repositioning some (or all) of Skype for Business as Microsoft Teams (the collaborative group-based chat service built on various Office 365 services but Skype for Business in particular).

The details of that story are kind of irrelevant to this post; it’s the reaction I got on Twitter that I felt the need to comment on (when I hit 5 tweeted replies I thought a blog post might be more appropriate).

Change is part of consuming cloud services. There’s a service agreement and a subscription/licensing agreement – customers consume the service as the provider defines it. The service provider will generally give notice of change but you normally have to accept it (or leave). There is no option to stay on legacy versions of software for months or years at a time because you’re not ready to update your ways of working or other connected systems.

That is a big shift and many IT departments have not adjusted their thinking to adopt this new way of working.

I’ve seen many organisations moving to cloud services (mostly Office 365 and Azure) and stick with their current approach. They do things like try to map drive letters to OneDrive because that’s what users are used to, instead of showing them new (and often better) ways of working. They try to use old versions of Office with the latest services and wonder why the user experience is degraded. They think about the on-premises workloads (Exchange, Lync/Skype for Business, SharePoint) instead of the potential provided by the whole productivity platform that they have bought licences to use. They try to turn parts of the service off or hide them from users.

My former colleague Steve Harwood (@SteeveeH) did some work with one of risual’s customers to define a governance structure for Office 365. It’s great work – and maybe I’ll blog about it separately – but the point is that organisations need to think differently for the cloud.

Buying services from Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Salesforce, et al is not like buying them from the managed services provider that does its best to maintain a steady state and avoid change at all costs (or often at great cost!). Moving to the cloud means constant change. You may not have servers to keep up to date once your apps are sold on an “evergreen” subscription basis but you will need to keep client software up to date – not just traditional installed apps but mobile apps and browsers too. And when the service gains a new feature, it’s there for adoption. You may have the ability to hide it but that’s just a sticking plaster solution.

Often the cry is “but we need to train the users”. Do you really? Many of today’s business end users have grown up with technology. They are familiar with using services at home far more advanced than those provided by many workplaces. Intuitive user interfaces can go a long way and there’s no need to provide formal training for many IT changes. Instead, keep abreast of the advertised changes from your service provider (for example the Message Center in Office 365) and decide what the impact is of each new feature. Very few will need a full training package! Some well-written communications, combined with self-help forums and updated FAQs at the Service Desk will often be enough but there’s also the opportunity to offer access to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) where training needs are more extensive.

There are, of course, examples of where service providers have rolled out new features with inadequate testing, or with too little notice but these are edge cases and generally there’s time to react. The problem comes when organisations stick their proverbial heads in the sand and try to ignore the inevitable change.

Using a VPN to watch ITV content outside the UK

Those who follow me on Twitter (@markwilsonit) will probably be aware that I recently spent some time in mainland Europe – travelling through France, Germany and Switzerland with my family. You’ll probably also be aware that one of my hobbies is road cycling – and that I like to watch the highlights from the three Grand Tours (Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España) and from the Tour of Britain. With the Vuelta in full swing as my holiday started, I wanted to make sure I could still catch the highlights on ITV4!

Even with the new EU mobile roaming arrangements that mean I can use my mobile data allowance in other EU countries, I didn’t expect to be able to stream content reliably, so I took out a subscription to ITV Hub+, allowing me to download ITV programmes with the ITV Hub app (on Wi-Fi) and play back later, without ads. This worked brilliantly on the ferry to France but not so well once I was in my Paris hotel room, where the app detected I was outside the UK and denied access to content with a variety of error messages:

ITV Hub download error outside the UK ITV Hub download error outside the UK ITV Hub download error outside the UK

I was pretty annoyed – after all, there was no mention of UK-only coverage when I subscribed to the ITV Hub+ and the ITV website says:

“Where can I use a Hub+ subscription?

As long as you’re signed into your account, you’ll be able to use your Hub+ subscription almost anywhere. Watch ad-free telly on our website, download and catch up on the go on your mobile or tablet, or binge on your favourite shows with no interruptions on your Smart TV!”

but I did find the limitation in their troubleshooting guide later:

I am abroad and can’t watch videos
The ITV Hub is only available within the UK as we don’t hold international rights for all of our shows. If you’re lucky enough to be on holiday or you live abroad, you won’t be able to watch ITV Hub until you return to the UK”

After a bit of a rant on Twitter (no response from ITV, of course), I thought about using a VPN (and @JFDuncan suggested Plex).

Unfortunately, my own VPN back to my NAS didn’t work (on reflection, L2TP/IPSec was not the best choice of transport – as @GarryMartin pointed out when I originally set it up) and I was nervous about using a third party service until Justin Barker (@JustinBarker77) suggested TunnelBear:

Recommendations are always good. And TunnelBear seemed more legitimate than some of the sites I found…

At first, I didn’t have much luck – even after following TunnelBear’s troubleshooting advice for accessing content. 24 hours later though, something had cleared (maybe I had a different IP address, maybe it was something on my iPhone) and ITV Hub+ worked flawlessly over hotel Wi-Fi and a VPN back to the UK. I could download my cycling highlights for later playback and the VPN tunnel even seemed to improve the Holiday Inn Wi-Fi reliability – possibly due to QoS restrictions prioritising potential business traffic (VPN) over leisure (downloading videos)!

I did have some challenges with playback – so I put the iPhone into Airplane Mode before watching content, just in case the ITV Hub app detected I was outside the UK again, but each time I wanted to download over the next few days I enabled the VPN and all was good. I also subscribed to TunnelBear for a month’s worth of unlimited data allowance (I soon chewed through the 1GB I got for tweeting about the service!).

Hopefully, this information will help someone else who’s frustrated by paying for a download service and then finding it doesn’t work outside the UK…

Saving money by fixing household appliances, instead of replacing them!

Over the last few months, I’ve had engineer callouts to our dishwasher (7.5 years old), tumble dryer (13 years old) and washing machine (also 13 years old). All of these household appliances are heavily used but they’re also from good brands (Bosch/Siemens/Neff) and they’re generally going strong… I also managed to get them fixed for very little, in most cases… saving hundreds of pounds against the cost of a replacement.

Case 1: Dishwasher with error message E:24 or E:25

Neff’s E:24 and E:25 errors mean there’s something stopping the dishwasher from draining (generally a kinked hose, blocked filter or something obstructing the pump). Our machine would run the first few minutes of the cycle (a self-test, apparently) before failing with one of these messages.

Despite following advice on the ‘net, I couldn’t work out what it was (I gave the pipes a good clean – especially around where they outlet pipe was plumbed into the drain – and checked for objects blocking the impeller on the pump).

A £65 engineer call-out from a local firm checked the appliance over but the error returned – and so did the engineer. This time he did a more thorough job and, although he couldn’t find what had been preventing the machine from running, the error has gone so whatever it was has been dislodged and our dishes are getting cleaned (without spending a few hundred pounds on a new integrated dishwasher…). Total cost to repair: £65.

I didn’t use the video below (I used others at the time) but this is a pretty complete view of the process I followed, and I didn’t see the engineer do much more!

Case 2: Washing machine tripping electrical supply

A few minutes into the wash cycle, the electrical circuit would trip on our Bosch Classixx 1200 Express. I managed to run the drain cycle and remove the trapped washing. Then I tried plugging the washing machine into a different circuit but saw the same issue – so I knew it wasn’t a general problem with the supply but with the machine. A call to a local engineer (not the one I used for the dishwasher!) was all that was required to get this machine working again (he fitted a replacement heating element). Total cost to repair: just under £75 (including parts and labour).

Case 3: Condensing tumble dryer not heating fully and clothes damp at end of cycle

The engineer who fixed the washing machine didn’t work on condenser tumble dryers, so I had to call Siemens’ official engineers to fix our elderly TXL 733. With the engineer call-out charge and the list of parts required, I was looking at nearly £300. Definitely beyond economic repair! Reviews on new A++ energy-rated models with heat pumps were not great – so we went with another condenser (moving from C to B at least). This cost £95 for engineer call-out plus £299 for a new appliance, minus another £50 cashback (due soon) for buying another Siemens/Bosch appliance.

Incidentally, I didn’t buy from John Lewis (as I normally would) – Co-op Electrical delivered the new appliance the next day.

Case 4: Washing machine making a loud vibration noise

After paying out to get the machine fixed once, it was on borrowed time. No more engineer call-outs – at some point you have to cut your losses and buy a new appliance. For the last few washes, our machine has been incredibly noisy and after returning from holiday with a lot of loads to run, I was ready to have to buy a replacement today.

But, before ordering a new machine, I decided to search the Internet and, thanks to these two videos I found the problem – a shirt collar stiffener that had worked its way out of my shirt and into the workings of the machine!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6y8nI7P0XeE

Shirt collar stiffener extracted from noisy Bosch washing machine

Total cost to repair: £0.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Replace Repair?

I may still have a teenage washing machine (and a dishwasher heading toward double digits too) but newer appliances are not built to last as long as these were. Maybe these quick and relatively cheap fixes can help others keep their appliances going for a bit longer…

Downloading multiple YouTube videos for offline playback

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a nifty utility called youtube-dl that can be used to download content from YouTube for offline playback (indeed, I’m writing this on the last day of my holidays, having played precisely none of the content I downloaded to watch whilst I was away!).

In the original post, I suggested giving youtube-dl the URL for a playlist to download all videos in the playlist. It’s also smart in that if it detects any videos that are already present in the folder, it will skip them – e.g.:

[download] Cloud Tech 10 – 3rd July 2017 – Azure Machine Learning, Jenkins, Petya detection and more-ymKSGTR55LQ.mp4 has already been downloaded

But what if you want to download lots of videos that are unrelated – or just certain videos from a large list? In my case, I wanted to download a bunch of recent videos from the Global Cycling Network (GCN) – a YouTube channel that I often watch but which has thousands of videos – I certainly didn’t want to download the entire playlist!

Instead, create a file with the download commands for the individual videos, e.g.:

youtube-dl -f 22 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RsFWlvJjOg
youtube-dl -f 22 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7FxZ1kFIW0
youtube-dl -f 22 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOaeo3_E8R4

Rather than sitting at the terminal, running each one and waiting, save the file with a .sh extension (assuming a Unix-based OS – like MacOS) and then kick them off at once.

My file was called dl-gcn.sh but it’s no good running that from the Terminal – bash will complain.

bash: dl-gcn.sh: command not found

Instead, prefix with sh as follows:

sh dl-gcn.sh

and the downloads should run through in serial fashion, whilst you get on with something more interesting…