Weeknote 22/2020: holidaying on the Costa del Great Ouse (plus password resets, cycling performance, video-conferencing equipment and status lights)

In the last few hours of 2019, my family planned our holiday. We thought we had it all sorted – fly to Barcelona, spend the weekend sight-seeing (including taking my football-mad son to Camp Nou) and then head up the coast for a few more days in the Costa Brava. Flights were booked, accomodation was sorted, trips were starting to get booked up.

We hadn’t counted on a global pandemic.

To be clear, I’m thankful that myself, my family and friends, and those around us are (so far) safe and well. By April, I didn’t much like the prospect of getting into a metal tube with 160+ strangers and flying for 3 hours in each direction. We’re also incredibly lucky to be able to access open countryside within a couple of hundred metres of our house, so daily exercise is still possible and enjoyable, with very few people around, most of the time.

I still took the week off work though. After cancelling my Easter break, it’s been a while since I took annual leave and even my Furlough period was not exactly relaxing, so I could do with a rest.

The weather has been glorious in the UK this week too, making me extra-glad we re-landscaped the garden last year and I’ve spent more than a few hours just chilling on our deck.

Unfortunately, we also got a taste of what it must be like to live in a tourist hotspot, as hundreds of visitors descended on our local river each day this weekend. It seems the Great Ouse at Olney has featured in a list of top places to swim in Britain, which was recently featured in The Times. It may sound NIMBYish, but please can they stay away until this crisis is over?

As for the holiday, hopefully, we’ll get the money refunded for the cancelled flights (if the airlines don’t fold first – I’m sure that if they refunded everyone they would be insolvent, which is my theory for why they are not increasing staff levels to process refunds more quickly); FC Barcelona contacted me weeks ago to extend my ticket and offer a refund if we can’t use it; and AirBnB had the money back in our account within days of us being forced to pull out due to cancelled flights.

(I did spend a few weeks effectively “playing chicken” with easyJet to see if they would cancel first, or if it would be us. An airline-cancelled flight can be refunded, but a consumer-cancelled flight would be lost, unless we managed to claim on travel insurance).

Even though I’ve had a week off, I’ve still been playing with tech. Some of my “projects” should soon have their own blog post (an Intel NUC for a new Zwift PC; migrating my wife’s personal email out of my Office 365 subscription to save me a licence; and taking a look at Veeam Backup for Office 365), whilst others get a brief mention below…

Please stop resetting user passwords every x days!

Regularly resetting passwords (unless a compromise is suspected) is an old way of thinking. Unfortunately, many organisations still make users change their password every few weeks. Mine came up for renewal this week and I struggled to come up with an acceptable, yet memorable passphrase. So, guess what? I wrote it down!

I use a password manager for most of my credentials but that doesn’t help with my Windows logon (before I’ve got to my browser). Biometric security like Windows Hello helps too (meaning I rarely use the password, but am even less likely to remember it when needed).

Here’s the National Cyber Security Centre (@NCSC)’s password guidance infographic (used with permission) and the associated password guidance:

This list of 100,000 commonly used passwords that will get blocked by some systems may also be useful – from Troy Hunt (@TroyHunt) but provided to me by my colleague Gavin Ashton (@gvnshtn).

Performance analysis for cyclists, by cyclists

I’ve been watching with interest as my occasional cycling buddy (and now Azure MVP) James Randall (@AzureTrenches) has been teasing development on his new cycling performance platform side project. This week he opened it up for early access and I’ve started to road test it… it looks really promising and I’m super impressed that James created this. Check it out at For Cyclists By Cyclists.

Podcasting/video conferencing upgrades in my home office

With video conferencing switching from something-I-use-for-internal-calls to something-I-use-to-deliver-consulting-engagements, I decided to upgrade the microphone and lighting in my home office. After seeking some advice from those who know about such things (thanks Matt Ballantine/@ballantine70 and the WB-40 Podcast WhatsApp group), I purchased a Marantz MPM-1000U microphone, boom arm, shock mount, and a cheap rechargeable LED photography light with tripod.

It’s early days yet but initial testing suggests that the microphone is excellent (although the supplied USB A-B cable is too short for practical use). I had also considered the Blue Yeti/Raspberry but it seems to have been discontinued.

As for the photo lighting, it should be just enough to illuminate my face as the north-facing window to my left often leaves me silhouetted on calls.

Smart lighting to match my Microsoft Teams presence

I haven’t watched the Microsoft Build conference presentations yet, but I heard that Scott Hanselman (@shanselman) featured Isaac Levin (@isaacrlevin)’s PresenceLight app to change the lighting according to his Windows Theme. The app can also be used to change Hue or LIFX lighting along with Teams presence status, so that’s in place now outside my home office.

It’s not the first time I’ve tried something like this:

One particularly useful feature is that I can be logged in to one tenant with the PresenceLight app and another in Microsoft Teams on the same PC – that means that I can control my status with my personal persona so I may be available to family but not to colleagues (or vice versa).

One more thing…

It may not be tech-related, but I also learned the differences between wheat and barley this week. After posting this image on Instagram, Twitter was quick to correct me:

As we’re at the end of May, that’s almost certainly not wheat…

Weeknote 19/2020: Azure exam study, remote working, and novelty video conference backgrounds

Another week in the furloughed fun house…

Studying

I still have a couple of exams I’d like to complete this month. I’ve been procrastinating about whether to take the Microsoft Azure Architect exams in their current form (AZ-300/301) or to wait for the replacements (AZ-303/304). As those replacements have been postponed from late April until the end of June (at least), I’ve booked AZ-300/301 and am cramming in lots of learning, based on free training from the Microsoft Learn website.

I’m sure it’s deeper (technically) than I need for an Architect exam, but it’s good knowledge… I just hope I can get through it all before the first exam appointment next Thursday evening…

Thoughts on remote working during the current crisis

I’ve seen this doing the rounds a couple of times on Twitter and I don’t know the original source, but it’s spot on. Words to live by in these times:

  1. You’re not “working from home”. You’re “At your home, during a crisis, trying to work” [whilst parenting, schooling, helping vulnerable people, etc.].
  2. Your personal physical, mental and emotional health is far more important than anything else right now.
  3. You should not try to compensate for lost productivity by working longer hours.
  4. You will be kind to yourself and not judge how you are coping based on how you see others coping.
  5. You will be kind to others and not judge how they are coping based on how you are coping.
  6. Your success will not [should not] be measured in the same way it was when things were normal.

This animation may also help…

Also, forget the 9-5:

As for returning to the office?

Video conference backgrounds

Novelty backgrounds for video conferences are a big thing right now. Here are a couple of collections that came to my attention this week:

Upgrades to the Zwift bike

My old road bike has been “retired” for a year now, living out its life connected to an indoor trainer and used for Zwifting. It’s needed some upgrades recently though…

I also realised why I struggled to do 90km on the road today… that was my fifth ride this week, on top of another 100km which was mostly off-road!

Weeknote 16/2020: new certifications, electronic bicycle gears, and a new geek TV series

Another week, another post with some of the things I encountered this week that might be useful/of interest to others…

Fundamentally certified

Last week, I mentioned I had passed the Microsoft Power Platform Fundamentals exam (and I passed the Microsoft Azure Fundamentals and Microsoft 365 Fundamentals exams several months ago). This week, I added Dynamics 365 Fundamentals to that list, giving me the complete set of Microsoft Fundamentals certifications.

That’s 3 exams in 7 “working” days since I was furloughed, so I think next week I’ll give the exams a bit of a rest, knock out some blog posts around the things I’ve learned and maybe play with some tech too…

Website move

Easter Monday also saw this website move to a new server. The move was a bit rushed (I missed some communications from my hosting provider) and had some DNS challenges, but we took the opportunity to force HTTPS and it seems a little more responsive to me too (though I haven’t run any tests). For a long time, I’ve been considering moving to Azure App Service – if only for reasons of geek curiosity – but the support I receive from my current provider means I’m pretty sure it will be staying put for the time being.

The intersection of cycling and technology

Those who follow me on Twitter are probably aware that for large parts of the year, I’m “Cyclist’s Dad”. At weekends in the autumn, I can usually be found in a muddy field somewhere (or driving to/from one), acting as pit crew, principal sponsor and Directeur Sportif for my eldest son – who loves to race his bike, with cyclo-cross as his favourite discipline.

This weekend, we should have been at Battle on the Beach (not technically cyclo-cross but still an off-road race) but that’s been postponed until the Autumn, for obvious reasons.

Instead, we’ve been having fun as my son upgraded his CX bike to electronic gears, using a Shimano Ultegra/GRX Di2 mix.

It’s all been his work – except a little help from Olney Bikes to swap over the bottom bracket (as I lack the tools for changing press-fit BBs) – and the end result is pretty spectacular (thanks also to Corley Cycles/@CorleyCycles with their help sourcing some brake hose inserts at short notice). I’ve never had the good fortune (or budget) for electronic shifting on my bikes but having ridden his yesterday (long story involving a mid-ride puncture on my bike) I was blown away by the difference that all the components he’s swapped to save weight have made and the smooth shifting. Oh yes, and it’s finished with a gold chain. I mean, who doesn’t need a gold chain on their bike?

Electronic shifting has its critics but first impressions, based on a couple of off-road rides this weekend, are very positive. Maybe I need to get a couple of newspaper delivery rounds to start saving for upgrades on my bikes…

TV

Right, it’s getting late now and Sunday night is a “school night” (especially true since my Furlough Leave is being spent focusing on learning and development). I’m off to watch an episode of the BBC’s new drama, “Devs”, before bed. I’m 4 episodes in now and it’s a bit weird but it’s got me hooked…

A toolkit for cyclists: saving money on basic maintenance

Anyone who regularly reads my blog or follows me on Twitter will know that cycling (or being a “cyclist’s Dad”) is one of my major activities. I also commute by bike where practical – I have a Brompton folding bike, which has caused some amusement in the office (think BBC W1A) – though I mostly work from home and commuting by bike up two flights of stairs might be a bit tricky…

Image result for w1a brompton

With more bikes in the family than I care to admit (I have at least 5 at the moment and my eldest son’s n+1 count is increasing too), I’ve been trying to do more of the servicing myself (or with my son) to reduce costs. This has been spurred on by a few things including:

  • I needed to call on help from others to swap pedals at a race recently. I had the skills but not the tools. I then bought the right tools…
  • I discovered that drive chains are supposed to be shiny, not grimy and that they perform much better when you know how to remove and degrease the chain, cassette, chainrings, etc. A chain cleaner is great, but if the other components are still covered in gunk then the chain quickly turns black again.
  • I also had to remove the cranks and bottom bracket on a bike as part of another project so the bike-specific toolkit has been growing.
  • My son was able to use his new knowledge and my tools to swap components between frames.

Luckily, it needn’t be expensive. Much as I would like to have a wall of Park Tool tools, that’s a stretch too far for my wallet, so this is what’s in the toolkit so far:

BTW, almost every task I’ve needed to complete has had a short video available on YouTube to tell me how to do it. GCN is consistently good.

Note: Wiggle rejected me for their affiliate marketing scheme, so there is no financial incentive for me if you click the links above – they are purely for the convenience of readers!

Shop local when buying a new bike

Back in 2013, I bought myself a road bike. It’s a Bianchi Via Nirone 7 C2C and it was the first road bike I’d had since my teenage years when I had a 21-speed “racer” (complete with shifters on the down tube).

My Bianchi has served me well but, after nearly 12000km I’m starting to notice some hairline cracks in the paint, a bit of corrosion on the chainstay – and I recently had to cut out one of the upgrades I’d made as the carbon fibre seat post had bonded itself to the inside of the aluminium alloy seat tube.

I’d been saving up for a new bike for a while (promising myself that I could have a new bike when I lost some weight…) but I decided to retire the Bianchi (or at least just use it for Zwifting) and get something new (maybe I can lose some weight by riding more now I have the new bike).

For a long while, I was tempted by a Canyon Endurace CF SL Disc 8.0 Di2. Canyon make some lovely bikes but they are mail-order only (unless you can visit them in Germany). Not having distributors reduces the price, but it also increases the risk of buying the wrong size, etc. added to which, recent experience (buying a frame from Planet X for my son) showed me that sometimes you get what you pay for.

I also feel guilty every time I shop at Wiggle – we’ll miss our local bike shops (LBS) when they are gone and I’ve relied on a few for parts at short notice recently (including Corley Cycles and Chaineys in Milton Keynes). But, just like buying from Amazon instead of a high street store, sometimes the economics mean it just makes sense. Even so, with a new bike purchase, I wasn’t entirely comfortable buying online.

I looked at some of the other mainstream brands too (how about a Trek Domane?). But what about the price difference?

Well, there were a few things to take into account there:

  • Online sizing tools are good, but not perfect and the Canyon would need a bike fit before I could be sure I was ordering the right size. Corley Cycles included not only the sizing fit but also an advanced bike fit with the new bike.
  • Then, membership of my local cycling club got me a further discount (10%).
  • At this point, we’re getting close to pretty much the same price.
  • Chuck in some bottles, cages, and a lot of advice – plus I’m helping to keep my LBS in business and I decided that I’d rather have the “purchase from a shop” experience.

So, I’m now the proud owner of the new Specialized Roubaix Comp (2020 edition). Sure, the lightweight endurance bike with electronic shifting became a lightweight endurance bike with mechanical shifting and front suspension instead but my conscience is clear – and it is pretty damned awesome.

The perils of mixing aluminium alloy and carbon fibre cycle components (removing a stuck seatpost)

When I first started road cycling, a friend suggested I could increase my comfort for not too much money with a carbon seatpost upgrade. A short while later I was the proud owner of a Deda Superzero post and it looked good, even if the marginal gains with me riding the bike were so small that they could be offset by an extra cup of coffee…

Fast forward a few years and my teenage son was borrowing my bike as he’d outgrown his. I went to adjust the seatpost and found it was stuck fast. And I mean stuck. Solid.

Obviously, this was fine for me to ride the bike but I couldn’t just leave it. Over time aluminium alloy (e.g. my frame) will bond itself to carbon fibre (e.g. my seatpost) and even though a bike mechanic had applied some anti-seize paste and I’d given the post a “wiggle” from time to time, I’d obviously left it too long since the last check.

So I hit the Internet and Googled “how to remove stuck seat post carbon aluminium”…

There’s a load of ideas on the Sheldon Brown bicycle technical info site.

And this thread at BikeRadar is useful too.

Added to which, there’s more info at Cycling UK including a health warning about cutting carbon fibre. The dust is nasty stuff…

I’d used penetrating oils and hot water on the frame but the bond was too tight – not enough space to get the oil down. So, with assistance from a fellow club member who was very generous with his time and use of his tools, I tried heating and cooling the affected areas of frame and post with a heat gun and some “Shock and Unlock”. Ideally, this would cool the post and heat the frame – the idea being that one will expand and the other contract, breaking the bond. Nothing.

Heating and cooling the seatpost Frozen seatpost

Then we tried the other way – even if it pushed the materials together it might break the bond on cooling. This was quickly followed by disaster – I attempted to move the post when it had been heated, it seemed to move, too easily and I found I’d actually twisted it and deformed the post.

Snapped seatpost

“Right, now that post is a write-off, at least the frame is OK, we’ll have to cut it out.”

We tried using naked hacksaw blades (wet seems to help and I also seemed to do better with 36T blades than 24T), a padsaw, even an electric reciprocating saw.

Cutting out the seatpost

Eventually (and I mean after many hours) I had cut some channels in the remains of the post but it still wasn’t coming out. The idea is that it should collapse in on itself once there’s a vertical cut that stops it pushing against the frame seat tube. What did happen though was that the carbon fibre delaminated and we were able to chisel pieces out using a variety of punches chisels and screwdrivers and a lot of GT85 (being careful not to damage the frame).

Eventually, the post came out, in thousands of pieces over a few more hours. And the depressing part, when the bottom section of the seatpost was removed (the last few inches hadn’t seized), we could see just how little effect the hacksaw had made that far down the post – there just wasn’t enough force to make a difference.

With the last of the pieces out I cleaned up the inside of the frame with some wire wool (using a bent coat hanger to pull it back up) and put the original aluminium seatpost back. There are some minor scrapes inside the seat tube and some paint cracks on the top section too so I’m not sure whether I’ve compromised the frame.

Seatpost removed

Thankfully, I brought forward my plans for a new bike, bought my son a larger frame for his and this one is now in semi-retirement, relegated to Zwift duties.

It took me (and a friend) at least 8, maybe 12 hours to remove that post so, if you do mix aluminium alloy and carbon fibre components, make sure you (re)move them regularly. 

Strava Art

It’s no secret that I enjoy cycling – and I’m also a bit of a geek. My cycling and my tech come together in various places but Strava is one of the most obvious… I have been known to say “If it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen” (of course, that’s in jest – but I do get annoyed if my GPS traces get messed up).

There’s something quite wonderful about maps too. Maybe this is another side of my geekiness but I love looking at a good map. So, what if you could have a map of a ride you’re particularly proud of turned into a piece of art to display on your wall?

As it happens – you can do exactly that. Cyced produce high quality Strava Art for runners and cyclists. So, when Angus from Cyced asked me if I’d like to review their service, I was interested to give it a try.

I settled on the ride I did with my son last year to raise money for his trip to the Kandersteg International Scout Centre and I provided a Strava link (a GPX file would have been another option). Soon afterwards, Angus sent me a PDF proof to review and, a couple of days after I confirmed the edits, the final print arrived.

I was impressed by how well it was wrapped – indeed, I’ve never had an “unboxing experience” quite like this for a piece of artwork: wrapped in tissue paper; sandwiched between sheets of heavy-duty card; all inside a sturdy card envelope. It would be pretty difficult for my postie to accidentally bend this package!

The print itself is really high quality and the simple (Strava-inspired) colours look amazing – greys, whites and orange highlights. The print that Angus created for me is A4 but there are A3 and A2 options too. I’m now considering buying a second print for the “Man Cave” when I have a suitably big ride to be proud of (or maybe with last year’s London Revolution route).

If you’re looking for something a little different for your wall – a piece of art to celebrate a ride, a run, or maybe a present for a runner/cyclist friend or family member, I’d recommending checking out the Strava Art from Cyced. As the website says it’s “worth more than just a kudos”!

Full disclosure: Cyced provided me with an A4 print in exchange for this blog post but that doesn’t influence my review. Everything I’ve written is my true opinion – but it’s nice to have the artwork for my son to keep as a memento of our 70 miles MTBing along the Grand Union Canal towpath last summer!

Weeknote 17: Failed demos, hotel rooms, travel and snippets of exercise (Week 18. 2018)

This week, I’ve learned that:

  • I must trust my better judgement and never allow anyone to push me into demonstrating their products without a properly rehearsed demo and the right equipment…
  • There are people working in offices today who not only claim to be IT illiterate but seem to think that’s acceptable in the modern workplace:
  • That operations teams have a tremendous amount of power to disregard and even override recommendations provided by architects who are paid to provide solid technical advice.
  • That, in 2018, some conference organisers not only think an all-male panel is acceptable but are hostile when given feedback…

I’ve also:

  • Gone on a mini-tour of Southern England working in London, Bristol and Birmingham for the first four days of the week. It did include a bonus ride on a brand new train though and a stint in first class (because it was only £3 more than standard – I’ll happily pay the difference)!
  • Taken a trip down memory lane, revisiting the place where I started my full-time career in 1994 (only to be told by a colleague that he wasn’t even born in 1994):
  • Squeezed in a “run” (actually more like a slow shuffle) as I try to fit exercise around a busy work schedule and living out of a suitcase.
  • Managed to take my youngest son swimming after weeks of trying to make it home in time.
  • Written my first blog post that’s not a “weeknote” in months!
  • Picked up a writing tip to understand the use of the passive voice:

So the week definitely finished better than it started and, as we head into a long weekend, the forecast includes a fair amount of sunshine – hopefully I’ll squeeze in a bike ride or two!

Weeknote 15: Pyramid training (Week 16, 2018)

This week has been pyramid-shaped:

  • Monday: start work on Customer A’s End User Computing Strategy.
  • Tuesday: work on Customer B’s Surface/Windows 10 rollout (I’ve stopped pretending that it’s anything to do with a “Modern Workplace” because it’s completely technology-focused). Then, up to Stafford ready for Wednesday’s team meeting and an opportunity for dinner at The Market Vaults (great “dirty burger” and real ale).
  • Wednesday: Team Meeting – opportunity to catch up with my fellow Architects (we’re generally working on different projects so always good to get together). Second trip to the Market Vaults in as many days…
  • Thursday: Back with customer B, then over to the Microsoft Cloud User Group meeting in Birmingham.
  • Friday: trying to write customer A’s strategy but in reality dealing with customer B’s “issues” (and politics). Then, spend the evening at the local “urgent care centre” after my youngest son bangs and cuts his head on a wall whilst playing Xbox (3-4 hour wait means “urgent” is a relative term in an under-funded NHS)… anyway, playing on the Xbox is clearly a dangerous activity!

In other news, I finally managed to get my turbo trainer back to Wiggle using the Asda To You service. It’s a simple but smart solution and a great example of diversification where otherwise near-empty supermarket trucks take parcels from stores to the central distribution hub. Advantages include local drop-off for customers, extra revenue for the supermarket and empty truck space gets used (with the consequential effect of fewer trucks on the road). And they’ll take parcels up to 25kg.

I need to wait for Wiggle and Tacx to work out what’s wrong with my trainer and repair or replace now (so no Zwifting) but at least the sun is shining so I can ride my bike outside…

Talking of sunshine, I wish this was one of my pictures but one local photographer/drone pilot grabbed a shot of Olney in this week’s sunshine:

The rest of the weekend will include a road bike ride, then another attempt at the towpath MTB training with my eldest son (last time we attempted that ride a big puncture ended play), checking out a car boot sale as a potential opportunity to sell some of the contents of our loft – and taking my Mum for afternoon tea as a belated 70th birthday present.

I’ll wrap up this week’s post with another Instagram shot… these road markings amused me as I navigated Birmingham’s one-way system on Thursday evening…

Weeknote 14: Where were all the weeknotes? (Weeks 11-15, 2018)

Weeknotes have been a bit sporadic of late. No, not sporadic. Completely missing.

There have been a few reasons for this:

  • Work got a bit frustrating and it’s generally career-limiting to criticise your customer’s (in)ability to deliver…
  • I got really, really busy at work (see above).
  • And then I took a holiday.

The holiday was great – a week skiing in Tignes/Val d’Isère with my family and then a stop-off in Dijon on the way home. I’m told that the reason to ski at Easter is that you’re more likely to get good weather and we did have plenty of blue skies but it also snowed most days so we had a few white-outs too…

After just three seasons of skiing (for me and my boys), my family are now all at different ability levels with my wife being the most competent (if not as confident as she might have been skiing pre-family!); my eldest son bordering on reckless (just wanting to go faster), skiing black runs and even off-piste (at ski school); my youngest turning into a smart little skier, happy on any of the pistes; and me left behind them all (although I conquered my fear of the red runs this year and my technique is improving).

My family always know when I’m relaxed. That’s when my creative side starts to show – I take more photos and I’m inspired to blog. And that’s why my Instagram feed has been a bit busier of late!

Skiing in Tignes-Val d'Isère (Espace Killy)

The return to work was gentle – the Easter holidays, annual leave and my birthday (we get birthday leave at risual) meant a two day week before I really got back into work.

Unfortunately, after getting home, my Tacx Vortex smart trainer broke. And with just a few weeks to go before the London Revolution, I was hoping to up my training. No Zwift for me until I can get it repaired or replaced though – and that means sending it back to Wiggle.

I found the original box for the trainer, packed it up and weighed it. 12kgs. Too heavy (and a little large) for Collect+ so I followed the advice from Wiggle to send it back using another carrier (and reclaim the postage). Unfortunately, I used Hermes. They claimed that delivery had been refused (Wiggle said it wasn’t) and after a week the parcel was back with me. Their customer service was awful (no answer in Twitter, and only standard responses – nothing that actually answered my questions via email). I have been offered my next shipment free of charge but that’s irrelevant because there won’t be a next time. I. Will. Never. Use. Hermes. Again.

One thing this tweet flagged to me – Wiggle’s social media team and the people who look after their email are really not connected…

Next week I’m trying another option because Mark (@TheLongMile) highlighted the option to return items to Wiggle via a local Asda supermarket. To be fair, Wiggle also offered to collect but that would have been using Yodel (marginally better than Hermes but still not a great reputation) and I’d have had to wait in from 7am to 7pm one day.

Right, that will do for this week’s post. I’ll sign off with another pic from my holidays – breakfast at dawn next to Lac d’Annecy was a great reward for getting up at 4:30 to drive off the mountain ahead of the traffic…