The Joy of Clouds

Cloud and Tree

Image by Bessi from Pixabay

When I was at school thirty years ago I learnt all about mainframe computers and binary code, today they probably teach kids about how to use templates in Word to do everything for you and how to get emoticons on their iPads. When I left school I was sent on a YTS scheme placement at a letting agent whose computers were green-screen dumb terminals connected to the aforementioned mainframe-type network. These terminals didn’t store data themselves but stored what you entered on a central server computer, and we had to enter data from index cards onto the computer and write the record number the terminal gave you on the card, if you forgot you had to ask everyone else what numbers they had in order to work out which number you’d missed.

Since then we’ve been through a long era where the data you’re using is either held on the computer you’re sat in front of or a local server which creates a problem of having to transfer data to a new computer when the old one becomes too slow or losing it altogether when it dies completely. Then there is the problem of the software that accesses the data – constant upgrades, new file formats etc. The solution is cloud computing and is amazing. At home I use gmail which I can access from my PC, laptop, phone or tablet, at work we use Office 365 for email which removed the problem of having all our email on an old and creaky email server and even worse problem of some machines downloading the emails so they were not on the server at all. Now a new PC just means a download of a decent browser and log-in. I can even access my work emails from home if necessary – when we’ve had internet outages for example.

Even accounts software is moving online now so businesses can have the added security of not having all their eggs in one vulnerable server, so to speak, with the same benefit of being accessible anywhere, even from a phone app. There is the risk of hackers but that’s the same with a local internet connected server and usually the company providing the software will have good security on their servers, you’d hope.

The downside is often that unless the service is advertising funded the you’ll have to pay for a full-fat version of the service, free users will have limitations – such as the Evernote I’m writing this on which limits me to two computers. Before this limit was introduced I could start a post on my tablet, edit it on the laptop in Norfolk and finish and post it from the desktop at home. Now it’s just the laptop as a sofa based solution.

All these modern “terminal” solutions have removed the need for an all-for-one computer holding everything, I can put my best photos on Flickr, my writings on Evernote and so on, all backed-up online and accessible anywhere. Other services such as Google, Siri and Cortana enable you to bring a map up and then send directions to your phone from your computer, or send them to anyone else. I can instantly take a photo of something I need to describe and email it from the same device to whoever needs to see it.

Some software still, for me, works best as what was called a native app on a computer – such as a standalone word processor, spreadsheet, desktop publishing app or photo editor due to how web pages are constructed but as web languages continue to evolve and new technologies blur the lines between web pages and apps further maybe it will finally become unnoticeable. The idea of Software as a Service is how Microsoft distributes Windows 10 now, charging for new licences for each new computer but an existing PC will always have the most up to date version until it stops working. Web based office suites, online word processors and so on, are the basis of the likes of Chromebooks – where everything is stored and runs online and perhaps this is the way computing is going, software will never be out of date your data will never end up in a format you can’t open but you have to keep paying a subscription to access it, unless you accept banner adverts whenever you’re editing your latest monthly report.

Cloud computing has its advantages but also potential pitfalls, privacy is a concern for some but as so many online services have just shut up shop, with users’ photos and so on disappearing into the ether you do wonder whether the convenience is entirely worth it. It may be, but only if there’s the option to download your documents and use them without an internet connection, as you can still currently do with the likes of Evernote and OneDrive which synchronise locally automatically. Most importantly I’d prefer to be able to create home backups against a hacker holding everyone’s data to ransom, a mouse chewing through a power cable in a datacentre or a massive solar outburst wiping out the internet – in which case, however, we’d have much worse to worry about.

So cloud computing is the future but like tightrope walking it’s better with a safety net.

The Technology of Staying Apart

high angle view of woman sitting at desk

Photo by Ivan Samkov on Pexels.com

Traditional industries such as the one I am in don’t allow working from home, we sell glass, I haven’t got the room for the cutting table. Cloud based working though has allowed many businesses to continue through the current pandemic, many of whom have been critical. The internet of course has been fantastically useful at home for entertainment, education and information. It has been amazing how a number of technologies which once seemed niche have suddenly come of age.

Remote working has evolved quickly in the last few years thanks to Cloud Computing – information and even applications that you access on a computer being stored on servers somewhere else in the world, connected via the internet rather than being in the same building or on the computer itself – from the old days of clunky low-bandwidth video calling and rudimentary remote control to full team working and sharing of screens and data enabling full real-time collaboration where all participants can manipulate data in a shared space while discussing it as though in the same room. The most important area where this technology is critical is the efforts to develop a vaccine where data can be shared instantly.
  The advent of internet phones and internet based systems used by large companies has allowed call centres to be distributed, you might ring British Gas or Severn Trent Water – as I did about a blocked drain – and it seems like you’re talking to a chap in a big room full of people but maybe the background noise doesn’t seem the same, maybe that’s because he’s in his kitchen at home, in his slippers. Because the booking system for the engineers relies on internet-connected servers rather than the old wired connections within a building the computer used can be anywhere. Internet phones are the same, plug one into any internet connection and the traditional landline phone number associated with it can be used to ring it, anywhere on the planet.
  It was also a momentous day when Prime Minister’s Questions was carried out for the first time ever with barely any MPs present in the house of commons – most of them attending via video link. This could be a hint at how to do things in the future, cut travel costs and make sure that all the MPs can be there wherever they are. In fact already there are rumours (some are calling them conspiracy theories already) that universities are looking at this situation as a model for future methods of delivering lectures and that this could usher in a new business structure where companies have their workers at home all the time and wouldn’t need large offices just facilities for the servers and spaces for face-to-face meetings. The number of people commuting could be reduced too reducing road traffic and pollution as everyday work, meetings and even conferences and presentations can be done online as more people have now had to learn how to do it, the tv joke of someone sat in a suit and tie up top with pyjamas below the desk could, in the future, become normal. The nightmare flipside is being asked to take your phone and laptop on holiday with you – just in case we need you to take a few calls – ha, don’t think so.

Beyond work video calling, such as by Zoom, Skype or Facebook’s standalone devices keep family and friends in contact alongside normal phones. Online shopping allows people to get essentials while in isolation. Even volunteering, whether on a local scale or the NHS’ system has enabled volunteers to be notified on their mobile apps if someone needs medication delivering, taking to an appointment or just needs a chat with someone. Technology has truly enabled everyone to pull together and feel closer together while staying apart.
  Radio stations have set up micro studios in presenters houses, TV presenters have similarly done shows from home, adverts for TV and radio have been made remotely, many using footage from smartphones including shows specially for the lockdown including cookery and craft shows. Stock footage and image libraries have clearly been plundered for many of these lockdown-specific adverts.
  Have I Got News For You, which I just happened to see on the BBC the other night has the usual studio setup with the presenter in the middle and the two teams of panellists either side but with the guests on superimposed monitor screens instead of being present which looked surreal as they still cut to each guest as if they were there rather than showing their image full-screen.
  BBC4 have made a short series of programmes “Museums in Quarantine” featuring art experts exploring closed museums either via their online presence or via special permission to visit on their own providing a different viewpoint and something interesting to watch.
  Then there was the remotely recorded, distributed benefit concert Together At Home, which seemed to gether more comments on the artists’ homes, or home studios, than anything regarding their performances.
  Formula One and Formula E have held simulator based virtual races, using the already realistic training sims the drivers use before each race to practice for the first practice on the real thing. And even the Grand National was held virtually, all thanks to the still increasing power of computers that pack the graphical power of what used to fill a room into a desktop box – or rather a server rack full of them.

Magazines such as Fortean Times have been able to distribute their operation to their staff’s homes, having prepared years ago to be able to do so so apart from the printing and distribution the magazine can still be produced – and were even prepared for if it had to become online only for a while as they provided temporary free access to the digital edition for us subscribers. Again this is thanks to being able to create the various bits on PCs at home and then bringing them together via the Cloud, or email, into a print magazine via Desktop Publishing which is then sent digitally to the printers where the ethereal finally becomes the physical and drops on our doormat without any hint of disruption.

Home schooling has become the norm and there are numerous online resources for all ages, many of which have either always been free or have been while our lockdowns have been in place, with even the BBC providing what they’ve called Bitesize Daily – short educational programmes, as well as other online courses being provided free for people staying home to have something educational to do.  Online gaming has continued to bring people together, even if they are marauding across a virtual battlefield.  If there’s been nothing to watch on TV then there’s been the seemingly infinite resource of learning, entertainment and cat videos, YouTube to fall back on. 

There had been initial problems with systems for remote working struggling with the extra demand, such as with Microsoft Teams, but the providers have been able to quickly adapt to cope. Zoom has proved controversial too due to government security concerns concerning the encryption keys sometimes going through Chinese servers.

On the inevitable dark side of things criminals have been trying to use the pandemic to con people but again technology has also helped against the online threats, Google’s Gmail for example has blocked 18 million malware and phishing attacks per day through use of machine learning to teach the system what to look out for. A massive number of emails and messages have been pretending to be from the WHO so much so that efforts have been made to specifically filter such messages to confirm authenticity.

Other technology that even I have dismissed in the past has suddenly become very useful and even I’ve used it. Contactless payment is particularly useful when food shopping, I criticised this when it came out for its potential for theft from your cards but even I have used it throughout. Online banking – which I still won’t use personally – is undeniably useful in reducing the number of people needing to use physical banks, where you have to use the ATMs for all transactions now – which of course can now take deposits, carry out transfers and so on as well as doling out cash.

It’s not only tech that seems to be, by good fortune, in place just when needed the TV channel Dave in the UK has been partnering with the Campaign Against Living Miserably for a number of months now to make people aware of the importance of staying in touch with those friends or family who are alone and at this time it’s an all the more important cause.

Enjoy The Silence

Sunset over the Trent (© Andy Vickers)

Sunset over the Trent (© Andy Vickers)

I’ve just spent an hour doing something magical that everyone should try – nothing. I’ve just sat in silence with a cup of tea and watched the sunset without the modern nagging, guilty feeling that I should be doing something else, and without defaulting to the usual time-filler of watching something on TV or idly clicking around on the internet. In that time I let my mind wander, I thought through something that I needed to sort out in my mind, I just didn’t try to guide my thoughts too much.

Decades ago it was said that automation would give people more leisure time and they’d be able to relax more and be happier. Now though even at home we feel we must be doing something; if it’s not cleaning or cooking it’s watching the latest must-watch TV series, or catching up with Facebook or Twitter, or blogging (ahem), even holidays or days out have to be awesome experiences.  When you’re not working you should be socializing or partying or at least telling everyone who you’re not with what you’re doing via social media – if TV ads are to be believed.

Creativity and relaxation are enhanced by not having distractions so taking some time out has many benefits. Time is precious and sometimes doing nothing isn’t wasting time, doing something, anything, for the sake of it however, is.

Too Many Ideas and Missing The Tree

Forest

Forest

I’m struggling again with productivity, I have too many proto-articles and as such when I sit down to write I get struck with something called Workload Paralysis which is basically the inability to begin because there are too many places to start. I also forget what I could write about as my notes app and notebook have too narrow a window to show me my options, I can’t see everything in one glance – I need an overview, a priority schedule – which is something that technology isn’t brilliant at.

As I can’t find space for a full size whiteboard I’ve bought a white clipboard and some fineline whiteboard pens – onto this clipboard I will write one-liners – article titles that is, not quips. This way I’m hoping to be able to get some inspiration without having to scan through pages of paper or lists of notes on a screen.

This is why I’m still a firm believer in the physical and tangible media in concert with technology rather than as a replacement across the board, just sometimes it’s easier to deal with words on paper, they’re often much quicker to access, handle or process. And in my case having the ideas list on a screen doesn’t just mean I can’t see the forest for the trees, I often can’t even see the tree.