Gadgets, Productivity, Tech, Work

From Paper to Pixels, By Phone

Documents

Image by Jerzy Górecki from Pixabay

One problem with email is keeping messages of interest beyond the confines of the email system.  Short of emailing them to another account it used to be difficult to save something interesting, useful or funny and the only option was to copy and paste into a word document.  I have many files of such amusements but also many printed emails of jokes and so on from previous workplaces.

Over the years I’ve tried to digitise piles of saved magazine articles and such like using a variety of desktop scanners and the one problem has been speed – the scanning process taking thirty seconds to a minute per page and then if I wanted to manipulate the text I’d have to run it through an OCR (optical character recognition) program to extract the words, taking even more time.

I’d finally decided to have another crack at the problem of a pile of funny emails stuffed in a box file and vaguely remembered seeing smartphone apps that can scan documents using the high-res main camera and save them as Adobe PDF files.  I searched and downloaded Adobe’s own app and it’s again amazing how technology has moved on.  As new phone cameras have improved in quality the images produced are crisp and clear so are perfect for document archiving.  When you start scanning the software automatically detects the edges of the document, photographs it, straightens it and then, best of all, before giving the option of scanning more pages or saving to PDF it OCRs the text too.

The end result is a portable document, or multiple pages in one file if necessary, which even has selectable text that can be copied into a word-processor document or spreadsheet, an ideal way of digitising and making all those previously fixed words editable and searchable again.  The very best thing though is it all takes a matter of seconds per page.  For anything that needs a bit more precision or detail – photos for example – I’d still use my high-res flatbed scanner.

It’s another example of how smartphones are becoming ubiquitous tools, the digital Swiss army knife, used to communicate, inform and amuse, entertain, create, record and archive.  All the processing power the scanning requires also underlines how far microprocessors have progressed, being able to do this in a tiny handheld box less than ten millimetres thick.  All the effort of scanning over fifty pages did leave my phone a little warm admittedly, so I decided to give it a bit of a rest and write this instead – on my big desktop PC.

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Gadgets, Music, Tech, Television

Timeshift

I can admit when I’m wrong, I don’t always like it but I can. When companies started talking about internet based on-demand TV I thought that the bandwidth requirements would overwhelm the technology, I was wrong and I’m really quite glad about that.

I haven’t signed up for any of the paid-for services but have found uses for the free ones. I’ve said before that I watch Antiques Roadtrip and as this is on while I’m at work I use the BBC iPlayer to watch it via a Roku on my TV, or on my tablet. Similarly I tended to relocate other shows to a time when there wasn’t anything else on the TV – or more recently on the radio, as I hardly use the telly anymore, or when I’m not busy doing something else.

It’s a far cry from when I was growing up – when the only technology we had to timeshift a programme was a VCR and a selection of tapes. The major problems, I remember, were remembering to set the timer; hoping that a power cut didn’t wipe the machine’s memory before it recorded whatever it was you wanted; finding a blank tape, or one you could reuse and ensuring that nobody wanted to record something else at the time. There was always the worry that someone would record over something you’d not watched yet. I do vaguely remember the broadcasters’ and manufacturers’ reminders that the VCR was only intended to temporarily timeshift shows like this.

After the VCR came other tech including hard-disc recorders, often including multiple tuners so you could record programmes from two or more channels at once, but these were soon rendered obsolete as well by streaming and catch-up services.

Recently I took advantage of an Amazon Prime free trial to watch Star Trek: Picard, and then signed up for a month so I could finish it – not being a binge watcher myself. This was an extreme example of timeshifting, being almost a year after it came out – a bit easier than waiting for it to be repeated on normal TV. Not that TV repeats are all bad – I usually end up watching QI a year after it’s shown on the BBC on the Dave channel, which has itself been so successful in repeating that it now gets referenced on shows such as, er, QI.

Catch-up and live internet radio is just as useful for listening to a show that’s on too early or late at a time when another show you’re not interested in is on. It also comes in handy when you’re listening to live radio, for example last week’s Liza Tarbuck on BBC Radio 2, and you miss something that someone’s said. In this case I grabbed my phone, fired up BBC Sounds and rewound the show by a minute. Which is one of the benefits of all these internet based services – radio and TV: you can go back and look at something again, pause it and write something down, or, most importantly, take a break and make a cuppa.

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creativity, Tech, Work

The Universal Instruction Manual

DIY

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

I still have a copy of a book that was once the bible for anyone who built or fixed PCs, it weighed about a kilogram and was roughly two inches thick, could break your toe if you dropped it on your foot and doubled as a doorstop when a new edition replaced it. It was one of many such books, many of which are still updated and published today, which were the go-to place for guidance when the machine or network you were fixing wasn’t cooperating. I have similar books for DIY and cookery as many people do. I also used to maintain lists and folders of useful settings and tips that I’ve either found or worked out but I find that I’m referring to these less as the smartphone is taking over.

I recently set up my new laptop and there are a couple of things I like to tweak on any new Windows setup but as it’s been a while since I last did it I couldn’t remember where the settings were – especially as one, the setting for turning the Caps Lock key off with the Shift key as on an old manual typewriter, seems to keep moving to different dialogs. Not a problem, I just picked up the phone and searched for it and the answer was provided via Google. Other search engines are available, of course.

The internet is an amazing resource for learning in this way, I developed an Access-based database ten years ago by doing the same thing, searching for how other people have achieved the action I wanted, whatever your struggling with someone will have a suggestion or a whole tutorial. At work I’ve found instructions on changing the side indicator lens on one of the vans and at home how to reset the service indicator on my old car. Naturally there are instructions for exercise, positive thinking, painting, brewing, relaxing, productivity, using tools and how to do home repairs – as we noticed from the number of people during the first Covid lockdown attempting their own glazing. The other advantage of the internet is that you not only have words and pictures but video too.

As well as the amount of crowdsourced instructions manufacturers also have their product manuals online too, which is useful if, like me, you can never find the manual for something you’ve not used for ten years – like my car battery charger I needed during the first lockdown which is an old piece of equipment yet the manual was there on the manufacturer’s website, which saved me half an hour of looking through a large box of instruction sheets.

I have another book that is called “How to do just about everything” – well, the internet on a smartphone is like having a million page illustrated book in your pocket called “Now we really mean how to do everything”.

Of course not everything in life should be attempted without professional training – gas repair and dentistry come to mind – also not all the advice and instructions are entirely accurate or advisable and as the saying goes “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, but as with going to the pub it’s all about knowing your limits.

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Tech, Television

Remote Selling

Auction

Image by succo from Pixabay

I watch the BBC’s Antiques Roadtrip which, for the uninitiated features antiques dealers and auctioneers travelling around the UK and Ireland buying antiques to sell, hopefully for a profit, at auction. In between spending cash the experts visit interesting local places along the way.

I thought that this year’s series wouldn’t be possible due to Covid-19, because of closed antiques shops and auctions not being allowed due to social distancing but another online innovation and the production team’s ingenuity has saved the day.

Auction houses have, of course, accepted commission bids and phone bids for some time but over the course of the Roadtrip’s twenty previous series more have accepted live online bidding.  Having an audience of not just potentially a couple of hundred in the room but thousands across the world benefits the auction house and sellers alike, often the online bids well outstrip what those present in person are willing to pay.

In the case of the Roadtrip itself there is still plenty of opportunities for Covid-safe shopping but social distancing has meant that we are now treated to our experts travelling in separate cars and sometimes by bike and then sitting on the edge of a field or car park watching the auction on tablets, losing a little of the atmosphere of the past, with the auctioneer in an empty room talking only to webcams and assistants on phones, but at least we still get our entertainment. 

It’s even thanks to the internet that I can watch it at all as it’s shown when I’m at work and I watch it later on iPlayer.  As such as they watch the auction on their tablets I watch them watching it on mine, if you see what I mean.

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Business, Tech, Transport

Sometimes I Surprise Myself

Gift

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

I’ve recently received a little padded envelope, I knew it must be something I’ve bought on Ebay but I could not for the life of me remember what it was. I knew it must be one of those little cheap gadgets or decorative items that fill Ebay, Amazon and so on and are all too easy to buy but which one?

It is one of the unexpectedly pleasant side-effects of having a poor short-term memory, lacking concentration, or visiting Ebay or Amazon while mildly inebriated, or all three: being able to give yourself a surprise gift, not just at Christmas but all year round, as long as it’s not too expensive that is, or too large – it’s less of a nice surprise to be greeted by an unexpected Jacuzzi or life-size toy Tiger if you don’t have the space to appreciate it.

The best thing though is if you happen to have it delivered from the other side of the world too, that way you also have about a month to forget what you’ve bought while it’s sitting on a slow boat from, well, you know where…

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Business, creativity, Design, Tech, Typography

Simplicity is Not Always Easy

Wood type

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Often an organisation or business will unveil a new logo, branding or slogan which is met by members of the public saying, like they also do when a footballer misses a goal, “I could do better than that” or “my six year old could do that with a packet of crayons.”
Such was the case with the London 2012 logo and the Scottish tourist board’s slogan of “Welcome to Scotland” which was ridiculed for its apparent simplicity – comments like “they spent hundreds of thousands on consultants and all they come up with is that, it’s bloody obvious.”

While it’s true that the end result is simple and obvious it was no doubt also the result of a long period of consultation on the wording of the message, then the design of the presentation of the message. Just because the end result seems obvious doesn’t mean it was from the start, hundreds of slogans were probably trialled on the public and expert groups and it could have been that something like “Get High on Scotland” combined with a talking Haggis could have been more memorable, made more of an impact and was now the slogan, the public would never have been aware that “Welcome to Scotland” had even been considered.

If a branding is seen as complex, showy, clever or edgy then the critical public feel that the money that was spent has been used, like it in some way involved more work, like a simple design would have been knocked out in five minutes between lunch and a few beers paid for from the budget. Was Kentucky’s slogan “Unbridled Spirit” which derived from the state’s big industries of horse racing and distilleries worth more just because it was a play on words and as such “a bit clever”?

Such armchair experts have never designed a logo. The last one I designed passed through numerous stages as it had to contend with people who really wanted to hold onto the old logo and then it evolved from two separate proposals that had elements combined into the final design. And I’m not even a professional designer.

Of course not all designs are successful, Nottinghamshire County Council’s “N” logo was dropped quickly due to negative public reaction, but again this was partly because the logo didn’t really symbolise the county but also because many people thought that the design’s simplicity indicated a lack of effort, that it was a waste of tax payers’ money. Combine this with the often repeated “it was just done on a computer” – by which they also mean “with no effort” (because the computer does all the work, of course) and the simpler logo will always seem worse value. I have encountered clients who insist on filling every square millimetre of an advert space with pictures and text because they think that white space is wasted space, I’ve been told that “customers want to see lots of pictures” and “the logo needs to fill the space” and so on, with my suggestions that white space helps to guide the eye around the ad and a cluttered design looks unprofessional went ignored because, well what would I know? As for distorting logotypes to fill a space so much that the end result would make the original typeface designer cry, don’t get me started.

There’s a video online that is a cartoon of a conversation between a designer and client in which the client keeps wanting to add more colour, more complexity etc, my takeaway phrase that I’ve used often was from the designer: “unbe-f***ing-lievable.”

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Fashion, Tech, Work

Oh For Fax Sake

Apparently the NHS is the biggest purchaser of fax machines in the UK. “What?” people cry, “why are they wasting tax-payers money on last century technology, it’s a scandal.” No it’s not, it’s because, fundamentally, it just works. Two machines connected by a phone line, you can send a message in seconds. In the pre-mobile days there were all kinds of fax-based services, one example that I’ve recently seen reminded of via a 1996 back issue was Fortean Times magazine’s FortFax service that allowed you to dial up and request articles be sent back to you.  

Of course though time and tech moves on and email has largely replaced faxing as I think people see it as obsolete because it’s an old technology, it’s monochrome and it’s paper based but at least modern ones use proper paper rather than the crinkly, fading thermal paper of old.  In addition companies only tend to have one fax machine so it’s inefficient to go to the machine to send a fax and have someone regularly empty it’s in-tray, so to speak.

For text you can, of course type out an email but it’s often still slower than writing out a fax unless you’ve been on Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing recently. The main advantage though is if you want to send a drawing as to email it you’d have to scan it, attach the scan to an email, type the email explaining what the drawing it and then send it to someone who has to open it, assuming they have the software to open the scan if it’s an Adobe document for example, then print it if they need the hard copy. With a fax you draw it on the paper, type the fax number and send. Simple and classic. I’m only moving, reluctantly, to scanning and emailing because the fax machine’s on its last legs.

I have found, admittedly that Email does has its advantages, like traceability and searchability and using templates for common emails like orders, quotes etc speeds up the process somewhat but it depends on individual circumstances. At the end of the day if it were still working and the people we sent faxes to still used faxes themselves then we’d still be using it – it seems that the fax has become a still useful, but niche, technology.

One day, like vinyl and 35mm film, it’ll become fashionable, probably amongst hipsters and their like, as an analogue, “authentic” communication method and there’ll be an app to send digitally crinkly and barely readable facsimile faxes, perhaps.

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Gadgets, Tech

Disks to Downloads, DOS to Dust

Storage

Image by succo from Pixabay

This is another of my “young ‘uns today don’t know how lucky they are” articles, cue the wavy picture and harp music…

When I started with computers you didn’t install anything, nothing had any permanent storage to speak of and software had to be loaded from a cassette or floppy disk every time it was used, as such task switching, a matter of a fraction of a second now involved making a mug of tea.

Move on to the nineties and PCs had gained hard drives and Windows but there were still computers such as Amstrad’s PCW that had a one-at-a-time way of working, the operating system came with whatever you were running because at that time it was what was called a Disk Operating System (DOS), hence MS-DOS. A DOS had a command line into which you typed commands to copy files, delete them, format disks, and other functions. There were reference wheels and cards for all these now archaic commands, I still have mine, unsurprisingly, and if you look you can still find them in Windows though strangely the commandline now runs inside Windows whereas once Windows ran from the commandline.  

Anyway, because PCs, unlike other computers with a specific operating system written for its fixed set of components, have a multitude of differing hardware the OS had to be tailored to each computer and so came along device drivers – programs added to the OS to operate them. Windows, like all modern OSes do more than operate the disks and as such are bigger and more complicated.  Early on displays were pretty much the same and used the same convention for displaying blocks of text, the same applied to printers but soon things became more complicated and later new developments such as CD-ROM drives worked in new ways that the OS was never designed to cope with and more drivers were required. These things were a nightmare to use, you had to manually edit configuration files, decide which part of the limited memory to load the drivers into, and when larger memory became available which went far beyond what the OS originally worked in you needed drivers to operate the higher memory which you could then populate with other drivers and then also use programs that knew if the extended memory was present that they could use it, if you’d configured it correctly. Do this all wrong and nothing would work because nothing had enough memory to work.

No wonder people were terrified of computers, it seemed to be a black art. More like a pain in the art.

Somewhere I still have a copy of PC Today magazine from the middle of 1991 which featured the brand new MS-DOS 5.0 on the cover. In the days when Operating Systems came in shiny cardboard boxes with a manual that listed every command and could be repurposed as a door stop after you upgraded.

Windows improved the situation somewhat but still relied on many of the DOS drivers for CD-ROMs etc until Windows 95 and Windows NT finally relegated the old DOS to a legacy subsystem to run old software, a PC within a PC, a Virtual Machine, though the configuration files still remain for those of us who know what they mean to tweak and those who don’t to Google. As we moved into later eras through 16-bit into 32-bit so memory could just be continuous so at least one problem disappeared.

It was with joy that the time came when Windows would automatically install a new piece of hardware’s drivers from a CD-ROM, except that sometimes it would be allowed to find the drivers itself and others it had to be told where to find them, depending on what the driver and software were for. It was still a huge improvement. In pre-broadband days though you still had to do some work to install the OS. You’d install Windows on a blank PC to be confronted by default drivers which meant a screen display with huge fonts and buttons that could be seen clearly from the next room and no space on the desktop – the dreaded 640×480 resolution (my current monitor has a roomy 1440×900 pixels). From this starting point you had to install the proper video driver so you could see what you were doing, the sound card so you could hear it beeping in complaint and hear the cheery startup sound that was the first thing to find itself disabled in the settings, and anything else unusual. Often this wouldn’t go according to plan and you’d see yellow warning triangles in Device Manager and have to start again – removing and reinstalling drivers, until you had a working PC but less hair.

Today you just download a copy of the Windows 10 disk from the internet, burn it onto a DVD pop it in the drive (or use a USB stick), go into the computers BIOS (basic input/output system) settings – the only throwback to the old days – tell it to boot from the external disk and set it going. As long as you’ve provided it with an internet connection via a wireless or wired network connection it’ll install, use whatever driver it can to connect to the outside world, download all the correct drivers and a couple of hours later you’ve got a working PC. Mostly. It only needs help if you’ve got obscure or old hardware it can’t find drivers for but even then the right ones are often only a download and install away. This is all possible thanks to all the manufacturers working together to try to make the disparate bits of a Windows PC work together.

I should say at this point “other operating systems are available” but these such as the various Linux distributions are similarly streamlined these days.

Beyond the operating system installing software has become even easier, not even a disk is required – I’ve recently installed Norton Security with nothing more than a piece of cardboard with a number on it and a broadband connection.

See, not everything about the older days of computing are better, I do like some progress too. The geek in me though does miss the shiny software boxes.

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Gadgets, Tech

Too Smart For Their Own Good

Kettle, Boiling

Image by Ken Boyd from Pixabay

Why do we need “smart” fridges, kettles, toasters. I like some technology to be dumb.

On Red Dwarf the smart toaster ends up in the rubbish compartment, because it’s annoying.

Considering the limited useful life of the average smartphone or tablet, before updates and so on force it to become slow and unsteady or it just fails altogether why do you want one attached to, and controlling your fridge. Ok, so it can keep track of what you need to buy, it can show you recipes and play music – so can your phone or tablet that you no doubt also have. My fridge-freezer is over three years old, I know this because it was here when I moved in, lurking in the kitchen as though waiting to see who’d turn up next. It’s seen the departure of the spare freezer and the replacement of the mouldy washing machine that had also been left here. The manufacturer is defunct now but the fridge-freezer still works, it has one control and keeps stuff cold, if I want to know whether I need more milk I have a cunning method – I open the door. There has been talk of smart fridges being able to tell you whether you have the ingredients for a recipe – fine if they’re all in there, for mayonnaise or eggs and bacon perhaps – but again, just look in it. Similarly they say you could scan things in and it’d help with monitoring diet – so what’s next a fridge that criticises my food purchases. I’m not having an appliance judging me for buying an eclair (or two) or for eating them both withing two hours.

I also prefer critical gadgets like alarm clocks and door locks to be low tech too – my clock radio is analogue and short of a power-cut will wake me up with modern miserable pop songs every morning without fail, having not crashed and rebooted, losing it’s settings overnight. I don’t want my door to unlock with my phone, a key only fails when it snaps – much less of a regular occurrence than the wifi or bluetooth not working. And I know the digital locks have a manual backup but that, in a way, just proves the point – they have to have the backup so why not just use the backup in the first place, a key needs no batteries. The car has a remote but there’s a flip-out key attached to it.

The internet of things has some uses, remote heating control and alarms or video door-viewers for example, but considering I need to fill the kettle with water and the toaster with bread I feel that the simple controls on both are enough, I do like the hidden blue progress lights on the toaster – only visible when in use, they are the funkiest thing I’ve seen on a kitchen appliance.

So much is tech for tech’s sake, a case of look what we can do, and as the more complex a device is the more likely something will fail. I wouldn’t want to buy a new expensive smart kettle every couple of years, or find I can’t have a coffee because the manufacturer’s gone bust or the API is no longer supported, I don’t want to wait for some toast because the toaster’s upgrading its software.

And so again it’s time for a decidedly low-tech cuppa. Goodnight.

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Gadgets, Health, Home, Society, Tech

Portable TV

Television

Image by 동철 이 from Pixabay

In the past the term “Portable TV” just meant the set had a handle and was small enough for one person to lug into another room, it wasn’t truly portable as it still had to be plugged in, to the mains if not an aerial. Today though, again through the multipurpose devices we call smartphones, TV is everywhere.

Again the sheer volume of output sees people feeling the need to watch wherever they are and mobile networks, of course, trumpet this as a virtue of their 4G and upcoming 5G networks – you can binge watch the new series that supposedly “everyone” is watching on the train, on the way to work, on the toilet, or all three. The previous menace of people not watching where they’re walking because they’re texting or facebooking or tweeting has now become people not being present in the real world because they’re watching fictional ones instead. Similarly on holiday people want free wifi everywhere so they can watch boxsets that it would be cheaper to simply spend a fortnight watching at home.

It’s not all bad though. With digital TV and internet streaming came catch-up services which I use regularly. Often the Cricket or Formula 1 clash with other programmes and as such I can sit later and watch it on my tablet or stream it to my TV via the Chromecast, or even watch two things at once such as the British Touring Cars and F1 British Grand Prix which due to the current back to back races were on at the same time. In the recent hot weather I’ve enjoyed being able to prop the tablet up somewhere cooler than the living room and watch the Cricket highlights – by which I mean the kitchen, not the downstairs toilet. Another advantage is while streaming either live or catch-up is being able to transfer the programme from the big TV back to the tablet and take it into the kitchen while making something to eat and still keep watching. Sometimes of course it’s nice to be able to lay on the sofa and prop the tablet up on my knees and watch the cricket highlights, QI or something similar in even more comfort than normal, especially in winter when pyjamas, a dressing gown and blanket may be involved as well.

When internet TV started I wondered whether broadband would have the bandwidth to cope, it seems to, even on the mobile networks and even on my 4Mb broadband at home I can stream effortlessly and in high quality.

There used to be an image of a family gathering round the TV of an evening, now they might watch the same thing in different rooms, even different houses and still chat about it on social media. Strangely though during and since the lockdown I’ve found myself turning the TV off more and reading, listening to music while looking out of the window or just, as the summer allows, the breeze and the sounds of nature outside. Some people seem to revel in the constant availability of entertainment but I’ve found it overwhelming and as much of it is repeated relentlessly I’ve become more selective and have felt better for it – this blog has certainly become better for it.

For someone like me it’s bliss to turn off, to be quiet, knowing that the now ever-present telly is there, if and wherever, I want it.

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