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 15/2020: a cancelled holiday, some new certifications and video conferencing fatigue

Continuing the series of weekly blog posts, providing a brief summary of notable things from my week.

Cancelled holiday #1

I should have been in Snowdonia this week – taking a break with my family. Obviously that didn’t happen, with the UK’s social distancing in full effect but at least we were able to defer our accommodation booking.

It has been interesting though, being forced to be at home has helped me to learn to relax a little… there’s still a never-ending list of things that need to be done, but they can wait a while.

Learning and development

Last week, I mentioned studying for the AWS Cloud Practitioner Essentials Exam and this week saw me completing that training before attempting the exam.

It was my first online-proctored exam and I had some concerns about finding a suitable space. Even in a relatively large home (by UK standards), with a family of four (plus a dog) all at home, it’s can be difficult to find a room with a guarantee not to be disturbed. I’ve heard of people using the bathroom (and I thought about using my car). In the end, and thanks to some advice from colleagues – principally Steve Rush (@MrSteveRush) and Natalie Dellar (@NatalieDellar) – as well as some help from Twitter, I managed to cover the TV and some boxes in my loft room, banish the family, and successfully pass the test.

With exam 1 under my belt (I’m now an AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner), I decided to squeeze another in before the Easter break and successfully studied for, and passed, the Microsoft Power Platform Fundamentals exam, despite losing half a day to some internal sales training.

In both cases, I used the official study materials from Amazon/Microsoft and, although they were not everything that was needed to pass the exams, the combination of these and my experience from elsewhere helped (for example having already passed the Microsoft Azure Fundamentals exam meant that many of the concepts in the AWS exam were already familiar).

Thoughts on the current remote working situation

These should probably have been in last week’s weeknote (whilst it wasn’t the school holidays so we were trying to educate our children too) but recently it’s become particularly apparent to me that we are not living in times of “working from home” – this is “at home, during a crisis, trying to work”, which is very different:

Some other key points I’ve picked up include that:

  • Personal, physical and mental health is more important than anything else right now. (I was disappointed to find that even the local Police are referring to mythical time limits on allowed exercise here in the UK – and I’m really lucky to be able to get out to cycle/walk in open countryside from my home, unlike so many.)
  • We should not be trying to make up for lost productivity by working more hours. (This is particularly important for those who are not used to remote working.)
  • And, if you’re furloughed, use the time wisely. (See above re: learning and development!)

Video conference fatigue

Inspired by Matt Ballantine’s virally-successful flowchart of a few years ago, I tried sketching something. It didn’t catch on in quite the same way, but it does seem to resonate with people.

In spite of my feelings on social video conferencing, I still took part in two virtual pub quizzes this week (James May’s was awful whilst Nick’s Pub Quiz continues to be fun) together with trans-Atlantic family Zooming over the Easter weekend…

Podcast backlog

Not driving and not going out for lunchtime solo dog walks has had a big impact on my podcast-listening…

I now need to schedule some time for catching up on The Archers and the rest of my podcasts!

Remote Work Survival Kit

In what spare time I’ve had, I’ve also been continuing to edit the Remote Work Survival Kit. It’s become a mammoth task, but there are relatively few updates arriving in the doc now. Some of the team have plans to move things forward, but I have a feeling it’s something that will never be “done”, will always be “good enough” and which I may step away from soon.

Possibly the best action film in the world…

My week finished with a family viewing of the 1988 film, “Die Hard”. I must admit it was “a bit more sweary” than I remembered (although nothing that my teenagers won’t already hear at school) but whilst researching the film classification it was interesting to read how it was changed from an 18 to a 15 with the passage of time