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!

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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!

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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.

Look after yourself, look after your mind

Last Tuesday was World Mental Health Day – a day aimed at raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilising efforts in support of mental health. 2017’s theme was mental health in the workplace.

The thing about mental health issues is that most people don’t understand – until we experience problems ourselves – and then we realise just how common those issues are. That’s why days like World Mental Health Day are so important.

I had my first “episode” back in 2007, when I let work-related stress build to a point where I was diagnosed with anxiety. It took a few weeks off and a change of job role to set me straight.

But stress-related anxiety is not something that one “gets better” from (at least not in my experience). Instead, I’ve learned to spot the signs and to take action. I’ve begun to recognise when I’m heading in the wrong direction because I’m agitated with colleagues or customers over apparently trivial things. My work isn’t going to get less stressful, so I’ve put coping strategies in place: I exercise; I try to take a break most days (even if it’s just a short walk, although I really must stop combining the short walk with confectionary purchases…); I blog (I find the writing cathartic).

Hopefully no-one notices. It doesn’t affect my ability to do my job (unless my job has unreasonable expectations) and a good manager (or team member) will recognise when someone is struggling.

So it’s ironic that, in the week of World Mental Health Day, I found myself finishing the week with a tweet about working late on a Friday again (which I probably should never have sent). And when I finally stopped for the weekend I realised why I was in the state I was in: I hadn’t managed to get to any of my “Caveman Conditioning” (circuit training) sessions; I travelled in evenings to be in the right location for the next day’s work and avoid an early start; I ate crap food; I didn’t get enough sleep (Premier Inn beds may be comfortable but a hotel is still not home); I hadn’t blogged in ages; and I’d had a cold all week.

This week has had less travel but still a lot of pressure. But I’m starting to wonder how much of that pressure is perceived. How much stress do I add by insisting that things are done to a particular standard? And really, does it have to be me? Do I have to say “yes” to every request?

I have deliverables to produce by the end of this week so, yesterday, I set Skype for Business to Do Not Disturb, closed Outlook and got my head down. My productivity soared. Stuff happened without me. The world did not end. Unfortunately, I checked email at lunchtime and fell into a pit of despair but, after responding to some messages, I closed it again and cracked on as best I could with the document I need to write. I wrote some more. I felt (a bit) better.

I won’t pretend that I’m not looking forward to a week off work next week. Even if most of my half-term plans revolve around a huge clear-out and getting on top of my home admin. That will be another set of tasks off my list, off my mind.

I posted another tweet this week – much more positive than last Friday’s whinge:

I was amazed how many liked and retweets it got: that’s a lot of people who recognise the situation. I’m not sure that the person who took the time to say “thank you” yesterday realised the positive impact they made but the little things really do help.

Further Reading

Some tips from my first few weeks with a GoPro Hero action camera

I’ve been interested in having a play with an action camera for a while now. I figure I can get some fun footage on the bikes, as well as ski-ing next winter, and I missed not having a waterproof camera when I was lake-swimming in Switzerland a few weeks ago!

So, when I saw that a contact who had upgraded to the Hero 5 was selling his GoPro Hero 3 Silver Edition, I jumped at the opportunity.

My camera came to me with quite a few accessories and I picked up some more for not too much money at HobbyKing (shipped from China in 3 weeks – don’t pay GoPro prices for things like a tripod mount or a lens cover!).

Whilst getting used to the camera’s controls (oh yes, and opening the waterproof case for the first time), I came across some useful tips on the ‘net… including loads of videos from a guy called Bryn, whose new users guide was useful to make sure I had everything set up as I needed:

Once I had everything set up and a fast 64GB card installed, My first outing on a bike with the GoPro was helmet-mounted. That was OK, but it’s a bit weird having all that weight on your head and also not too handy for working out if the camera is running or not. Since then, I’ve got a bike mount so when my GoPro is mounted on my bike, I have it below the stem, which means technically it’s upside-down:

No worries – the Internet delivered another video telling me how to set the camera up for upside down recording:

One thing to watch out for is the battery life – don’t expect to be filling your memory card on a single battery – but it should last a while. It’s just that a GoPro isn’t going to work as a DashCam or similar (there are actually some good articles on the ‘net as to why you would probably want to use a specialist dashcam anyway – I have a NextBase 402G for that). Anyway, I don’t want to have to edit hours of footage so knowing I can only record a few minutes at a time is good for me (I have hours of recordings on MiniDV digital tape that have been waiting to be transferred to disk for years!).

I did recently use the GoPro to record some presentations at work: great for a wide angle view – but it got pretty warm being plugged into a power source the whole time (so again, a proper video camera would be the right thing to use – and don’t think about using a DSLR or a compact camera – I tried that too and they generally switch off after 20-30 mins to prevent overheating). One thing I found is that each video recorded on the GoPro is chopped into chunks of around 3.55MB (I was recording 1080p). The file naming is worth getting used to.

Each video uses the same number (0001, 0002, etc.) but you’ll find that the first one is named GOPR0001.MP4, the next is GP010001.MP4, then GP020001.MP4, etc. So, when selecting a group of files that relate to the same recording, look carefully at the index numbers (the date and time stamp should help too).

Also, depending on how you import the videos (i.e. copying directly rather than using an application like MacOS Image Capture), you may see some .THM and .LRV files. The GoPro support site explains that these are thumbnail and low-resolution video files respectively.

So, that’s a few things I’ve discovered over the last few weeks and just a little bit of GoPro tinkering. Please leave a comment if you’ve anything more to add!

Seven technology trends to watch 2017-2020

Just over a week ago, risual held its bi-annual summit at the risual HQ in Stafford – the whole company back in the office for a day of learning with a new format: a mini-conference called risual:NXT.

I was given the task of running the technical track – with 6 speakers presenting on a variety of topics covering all of our technical practices: Cloud Infrastructure; Dynamics; Data Platform; Unified Intelligent Communications and Messaging; Business Productivity; and DevOps – but I was also privileged to be asked to present a keynote session on technology trends. Unfortunately, my 35-40 minutes of content had to be squeezed into 22 minutes… so this blog post summarises some of the points I wanted to get across but really didn’t have the time.

1. The cloud was the future once

For all but a very small number of organisations, not using the cloud means falling behind. Customers may argue that they can’t use cloud service because of regulatory or other reasons but that’s rarely the case – even the UK Police have recently been given the green light (the blue light?) to store information in Microsoft’s UK data centres.

Don’t get me wrong – hybrid cloud is more than tactical. It will remain part of the landscape for a while to come… that’s why Microsoft now has Azure Stack to provide a means for customers to run a true private cloud that looks and works like Azure in their own datacentres.

Thankfully, there are fewer and fewer CIOs who don’t see the cloud forming part of their landscape – even if it’s just commodity services like email in Office 365. But we need to think beyond lifting and shifting virtual machines to IaaS and running email in Office 365.

Organisations need to transform their cloud operations because that’s where the benefits are – embrace the productivity tools in Office 365 (no longer just cloud versions of Exchange/Lync/SharePoint but a full collaboration stack) and look to build new solutions around advanced workloads in Azure. Microsoft is way ahead in the PaaS space – machine learning (ML), advanced analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT) – there are so many scenarios for exploiting cloud services that simply wouldn’t be possible on-premises without massive investment.

And for those who still think they can compete with the scale that Microsoft (Amazon and Google) operate at, this video might provide some food for thought…

(and for a similar video from a security perspective…)

2. Data: the fuel of the future

I hate referring to data as “the new oil”. Oil is a finite resource. Data is anything but finite! It is a fuel though…

Data is what provides an economic advantage – there are businesses without data and those with. Data is the business currency of the future. Think about it: Facebook and Google are entirely based on data that’s freely given up by users (remember, if you’re not paying for a service – you are the service). Amazon wouldn’t be where it is without data.

So, thinking about what we do with that data: the 1st wave of the Internet was about connecting computers, 2nd was about people, the 3rd is devices.

Despite what you might read, IoT is not about connected kettles/fridges. It’s not even really about home automation with smart lightbulbs, thermostats and door locks. It’s about gathering information from billions of sensors out there. Then, we take that data and use it to make intelligent decisions and apply them in the real world. Artificial intelligence and machine learning feed on data – they are ying and yang to each other. We use data to train algorithms, then we use the algorithms to process more data.

The Microsoft Data Platform is about analytics and data driving a new wave of insights and opening up possibilities for new ways of working.

James Watt’s 18th Century steam engine led to an industrial revolution. The intelligent cloud is today’s version – moving us to the intelligence revolution.

3 Blockchain

Bitcoin is just one implementation of something known as the Blockchain. In this case as a digital currency.

But Blockchain is not just for monetary transactions – it’s more than that. It can be used for anything transactional. Blockchain is about a distributed ledger. Effectively, it allows parties to trust one another without knowing each other. The ledger is a record of every transaction, signed and tamper-proof.

The magic about Blockchain is that as the chain gets longer so does the entropy and the encryption level – effectively, the more the chain is used, the more secure it gets. That means infinite integrity.

(Read more in Jamie Skella’s “A blockchain explaination your parents could understand”.)

Blockchain is seen as strategic by Microsoft and by the UK government and it’s early days but we will see where people want to talk about integrity and data resilience with integrity. Databases – anything transactional – can be signed with blockchain.

A group of livestock farmers in Arkansas is using blockchain technology so customers can tell where their dinner comes from. They are applying blockchain technology to trace products from ‘farm to fork’ aiming to provide consumers with information about the origin and quality of the meat they buy.

Blockchain is finding new applications in the enterprise and Microsoft has announced the CoCo Framework to improve performance, confidentiality and governance characteristics of enterprise blockchain networks (read more in Simon Bisson’s article for InfoWorld). There’s also Blockchain as a service (in Azure) – and you can find more about Microsoft’s plans by reading up on “Project Bletchley”.

(BTW, Bletchley is a town in Buckinghamshire that’s now absorbed into Milton Keynes. Bletchley Park was the primary location of the UK Government’s wartime code-cracking efforts that are said to have shortened WW2 by around 2 years. Not a bad name for a cryptographic technology, hey?)

4 Into the third dimension

So we’ve had the ability to “print” in 3 dimensions for a while but now 3D is going further.Now we’re taking physical worlds into the virtual world and augmenting with information.

Microsoft doesn’t like the term augmented reality (because it’s being used for silly faces on photos) and they have coined the term mixed reality to describe taking untethered computing devices and creating a seamless overlap between physical and virtual worlds.

To make use of this we need to be able to scan and render 3D images, then move them into a virtual world. 3D is built into next Windows 10 release (the Fall Creators update, due on 17 October 2017). This will bring Paint 3D, a 3D Gallery, View 3D for our phones – so we can scan any object and import to a virtual world. With the adoption rates of new Windows 10 releases then that puts 3D on a market of millions of PCs.

This Christmas will see lots of consumer headsets in the market. Mixed reality will really take off after that. Microsoft is way ahead in the plumbing – all whilst we didn’t notice. They held their Hololens product back to be big in business (so that it wasn’t a solution without a problem). Now it can be applied to field worker scenarios, visualising things before they are built.

To give an example, recently, I had a builder quote for a loft extension at home. He described how the stairs will work and sketched a room layout – but what if I could have visualised it in a headset? Then imagine picking the paint, sofas, furniture, wallpaper, etc.

The video below shows how Ford and Microsoft have worked together to use mixed reality to shorten and improve product development:

5 The new dawn of artificial intelligence

All of the legends of AI are set by sci-fi (Metropolis, 2001 AD, Terminator). But AI is not about killing us all! Humans vs. machines? Deep Blue beating people at Chess, Jeopardy, then Google taking on Go. Heading into the economy and displacing jobs. Automation of business process/economic activity. Mass unemployment?

Let’s take a more optimistic view! It’s not about sentient/thinking machines or giving human rights to machines. That stuff is interesting but we don’t know where consciousness comes from!

AI is a toolbox of high-value tools and techniques. We can apply these to problems and appreciate the fundamental shift from programming machines to machines that learn.

Ai is not about programming logical steps – we can’t do that when we’re recognising images, speech, etc. Instead, our inspiration is biology, neural networks, etc. – using maths to train complex layers of neural networks led to deep learning.

Image recognition was “magic” a few years ago but now it’s part of everyday life. Nvidia’s shares are growing massively due to GPU requirements for deep learning and autonomous vehicles. And Microsoft is democratising AI (in its own applications – with an intelligent cloud, intelligent agents and bots).

NVIDIA Corporation stock price growth fuelled by demand for GPUs

So, about those bots…

A bot is a web app and a conversational user interface. We use them because natural language processing (NLP) and AI are here today. And because messaging apps rule the world. With bots, we can use Human language as a new user interface; bots are the new apps – our digital assistants.

We can employ bots in several scenarios today – including customer service and productivity – and this video is just one example, with Microsoft Cortana built into a consumer product:

The device is similar to Amazon’s popular Echo smart speaker and a skills kit is used to teach Cortana about an app; Ask “skillname to do something”. The beauty of Cortana is that it’s cross-platform so the skill can show up wherever Cortana does. More recently, Amazon and Microsoft have announced Cortana-Alexa integration (meanwhile Siri continues to frustrate…)

AI is about augmentation, not replacement. It’s true that bots may replace humans for many jobs – but new jobs will emerge. And it’s already here. It’s mainstream. We use recommendations for playlists, music, etc. We’re recognising people, emotions, etc. in images. We already use AI every day…

6 From silicon to cells

Every cell has a “programme” – DNA. And researchers have found that they can write code in DNA and control proteins/chemical processes. They can compile code to DNA and execute, creating molecular circuits. Literally programming biology.

This is absolutely amazing. Back when I was an MVP, I got the chance to see Microsoft Research talk about this in Cambridge. It blew my mind. That was in 2010. Now it’s getting closer to reality and Microsoft and the University of Washington have successfully used DNA for storage:

The benefits of DNA are that it’s very dense and it lasts for thousands of years so can always be read. And we’re just storing 0s and 1s – that’s much simpler than what DNA stores in nature.

7 Quantum computing

With massive data storage… the next step is faster computing – that’s where Quantum computing comes in.

I’m a geek and this one is tough to understand… so here’s another video:

https://youtu.be/doNNClTTYwE

Quantum computing is starting to gain momentum. Dominated by maths (quantum mechanics), it requires thinking in equations, not translating into physical things in your head. It has concepts like superposition (multiple states at the same time) and entanglement. Instead of gates being turned on/off it’s about controlling particles with nanotechnology.

A classical 2 bit on-off takes 2 clock cycles. One quantum bit (a Qubit) has multiple states at the same time. It can be used to solve difficult problems (the RSA 2048 challenge problem would take a billion years on a supercomputer but just 100 seconds on a 250-bit quantum computer). This can be applied to encryption and security, health and pharma, energy, biotech, environment, materials and engineering, AI and ML.

There’s a race for quantum computing hardware taking place and China sees this as a massively strategic direction. Meanwhile, the UK is already an academic centre of excellence – now looking to bring quantum computing to market. We’ll have usable devices in 2-3 years (where “usable” means that they won’t be cracking encryption, but will have initial applications in chemistry and biology).

Microsoft Research is leading a consortium called Station Q and, later this year, Microsoft will release a new quantum computing programming language, along with a quantum computing simulator. With these, developers will be able to both develop and debug quantum programs implementing quantum algorithms.

Predicting the future?

Amazon, Google and Microsoft each invest over $12bn p.a. on R&D. As demonstrated in the video above, their datacentres are not something that many organisations can afford to build but they will drive down the cost of computing. That drives down the cost for the rest of us to rent cloud services, which means more data, more AI – and the cycle continues.

I’ve shared 7 “technology bets” (and there are others, like the use of Graphene) that I haven’t covered – my list is very much influenced by my work with Microsoft technologies and services. We can’t always predict the future but all of these are real… the only bet is how big they are. Some are mainstream, some are up and coming – and some will literally change the world.

Credit: Thanks to Rob Fraser at Microsoft for the initial inspiration – and to Alun Rogers (@AlunRogers) for helping place some of these themes into context.

Short takes: iPhone broadcasting wrong number; fractions in HTML; Word comment authors

Another collection of things I found on the Internet that might or might not be useful for other people.

SMS and phone calls using the wrong number on an iPhone

In common with most people who “work in IT”, I get called upon for family IT support. In truth, I get called upon a lot less since my trainee geek (aged 12¾) deals with most of that for me! Last weekend though, he was stumped by the problems my Mother-in-law was having with her iPhone.

She’d bought a new phone and changed providers, then ported her number to the new provider. Although calls were reaching her with the correct number on her SIM, SMS and outbound calls were using the temporary number allocated prior to porting her “real” number.

I found the solution via the Giffgaff forums – where essie112mm describes a combination of steps including turning iMessage and Facetime on/off. The crucial part for me was Settings, Phone, My Number – where I needed to edit the number to the one that we wanted to use.

Writing fractions in HTML

In the previous section, I wanted to write ¾ using the correct HTML. As it happens, WordPress has taken our my HTML ¾ and replaced it with a raw ¾ symbol but I found this article by Charles Iliya Krempeaux (@Riever) useful reading for representing less common fractions in HTML.

Microsoft Word removes the author name from comments

I write a lot of documents in my professional life. I review even more for other people – and I use the reviewing tools in Microsoft Word extensively. One “feature” that was frustrating me though was that, every time I saved a file, my comments changed from “Mark Wilson” to “Author”.

My colleague Simon Bilton (@sabrisual) pointed out the fix to me – buried in Word’s options under Trust Center, Trust Center Settings, Privacy Options, Remove personal information from file properties on save (thanks to Stefan Blom in this TechNet forum post).

Remove personal information from file properties on save

It seems that our admins have set this by Group Policy now so I won’t have the problem any more but it’s a useful one to be aware of…