Productivity, Tech, Work

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.

Standard
Gadgets, Tech

It’s Old And Clunky, But It Works

Some time back a customer was surprised to see some software we use which is clearly, based on its buttons and layouts, from the days of Windows 95. He was even more surprised by our MS-DOS based booking and diary system. Old it may be but I can tell you it’s much more efficient than Windows software.

Everything is done with the keyboard and once you get used to it it’s lightning-quick – use the page up and down keys to select the week, then the arrow keys to select the day, while seeing a complete overview of current bookings, then hit enter, hit insert, hit enter a few times to move to the time fields and enter them, hit F1 to go into the customers list, just start typing the name until it finds the right one, or hit insert to enter a new one. Once the customers details are in use the left and right keys to go to the notes section or the phone numbers section end enter those, select File to save it, hit Escape to go back to the diary. Everything done in seconds without even moving your hands away from the keyboard.

I’ve used Windows booking systems and the ones I’ve seen involve clicking on different tabs, moving to the right button to save, etc, etc. Like so many things the more modern (the more “feature” filled) is also less efficient.

For those of us of the DOS generation it’s perhaps why websites and apps are frustrating, because of their multitude of buttons and tabs, replacing the keyboard combinations that we used to know by heart – including the ones used in Windows such as CTRL+B for bold text, CTRL+C and CTRL+V for copy and paste, automatically hitting CTRL+S to save the document while in the middle of typing and so on, actions that became second nature, reflex actions. Admittedly many, if not most of these shortcuts still exist in modern software but so many functions require the hunting and pecking actions of mouse or touchscreen. One example in Windows is when I upload photos to Flickr I append an ” f” to the filenames and it’s much quicker than clicking each file to highlight it and then click again to put the cursor at the end to just press F2 to edit the filename, END to go to the end and then CTRL+V to paste the pre copied ” f” to the end, then hit ENTER and DOWN ARROW to the next file.

My first book was written in Protext on my old IBM 486DX PC, the one with the perfect clicky keyboard I wrote about a while back. I learned word processing using Microsoft Works on things like Amstrad 1512 PCs and similar, and indeed taught people to use these same systems later. Protext 4 was a freebie on a computer magazine in the late nineties, Works tended to be bundled with PCs back then the way a trial of Office 365 is today. It was basic in todays terms but like the appointment system it was quick and easy to use for getting words into some semblance of order. Formatting it was a different matter but as this was still the era when most choices of typefaces and emphasis (bold, italic etc) were down to what the particular printer you were using has installed it wasn’t really much of a consideration – generally the aesthetics of word-processed documents were secondary to the words.

As with so many things which become rediscovered this simplicity and efficiency in software has now, of course, become the latest big new idea in the form of distraction-free text editors that have simple, uncluttered interfaces that allow you to type words and nothing else, some even have aped the interface of old that we oh so gratefully, naively, ditched as soon as WYSIWYG appeared and even have monospaced text.

The other advantage is that simpler software has, in theory, like a basic car with less gadgets, less to go wrong or slow you down.

So, in essence, though we didn’t know it at the time, us children of the seventies were, in terms of productivity, ahead of our time, no?

Standard
Gadgets, Meta, Tech

Paper Versus Pixels

Notebook

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

It has often been noted that ideas bubble up in the mind at inconvenient times: in the shower, on the toilet, when you’re just dropping off to sleep – it’s usually when your brain has few distractions, but it’s also when you’re often nowhere near anything electronic to make a note of them. I use Evernote to organise ideas and drafts for this blog and as I’m too stingy to pay the monthly subscription I can only use it on my desktop and laptop PCs, at home. Therefore when I think of something for a post I have to write it on a post-it note and I then end up with a small but colourful collage of three-inch squares of paper stuck to the desk.

The same is true of to-do lists and things to remember and shopping lists.

Before smartphones existed I had a Windows Mobile equipped PDA (Personal Digital Assistant, or Personal Organiser) which still failed to organise my life, through no fault of it’s own. More recently I’ve tried again, using apps on the phone and tablet but find that I tend to forget that I’ve put it on there whereas a piece of paper sits there, waiting to be dealt with, visibly. I have found the reminders useful though. I am tired of the clutter however so I’m going back to what I used to do before trying to go digital and using a single notebook that I can keep open on the desk to jot anything down on whether the computer is on or not and if I do use a random piece of paper – if I’m not at home when inspiration hits me round the chops for example – I can transfer it to the book when I get home and bin the scrap instead.

For some reason I’ve also found that if I have a list of titles, or brief ideas, for posts in a notebook I can flick through them and gain inspiration better than doing the same in Evernote.

I’ve had A4 and A5 spiral bound books before but now I’ve treat myself to a nice A5 six-ring binder as when I’ve typed up the notes I can remove the pages and bin them. I know I could do that with a spiral book but as I’ve said before I appreciate nice stationery and the posh binder looks neater on the desk, or on the tv unit in the living room.

I know that today I could even simply say “Hey Google add milk to shopping list” or “take a note…” so there’s not even any typing involved but somehow I just prefer actually writing the thought down, and anyway the virtual stenographer in a box would simply file the note away where I would forget about it again. Similarly, when it comes to reminders being able to just ask Google to set one up is handy. As for shopping lists I tend to use a basket and hold the list with the same hand as the handles so using my phone would be more of a problem anyway. When, one day you can make the Google assistant keep asking you, as you’re doing shopping “have you got the milk?” “Yes Google.” “What about the pasta sauce…” then it might be useful, or maybe not.

Beyond my inability to remember that Google Keep, or Microsoft Todo exist the paper notebook has the same advantages as a paper novel – it needs no batteries, it doesn’t have to boot up or sync with a server and as such it’s instantly accessible, as long as you’ve also got a working pen handy. Maybe this is why thirty-odd years since they became the yuppies’ trendy accessory-du-jour the Filofax is still with us.

Standard
Gadgets, Science, Tech, Uncategorized

From OK Computer to OK Google

Turntable & Laptop

Image by Becca Clark from Pixabay

Today I recieved a Radiohead album, it’s the second copy of OK Computer I’ve bought in my life but this one’s special, it has a second disc of b-sides and it came out last year to celebrate the TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARY of the original which I bought when it came out.

TWENTY YEARS?

Where the hell has it all gone.  For goodness sake.  Shakes head.

Anyway, my point, oh yes. I looked at it and thought about the title and thought about how much technology has changed in those twenty years and society with it (which is the core point of this blog).  The CD Walkman has become thirty-thousand songs stored on a phone, or millions on a streaming service.  Phones themselves have become electronic Swiss Army Knives and almost thin enough to be used as one.  We’ve gone from five TV channels in the UK to hundreds of channels showing mainly repeats, along with a seemingly endless choice of streaming media.  Texting has become Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Whatsapp (the latter three of which I don’t use and in the case of the last one I wouldn’t know what to do with).  Phone calls are becoming a thing of the past it seems with the younger generations in particular communicating via thumb rather than tongue these days.  However we are finally talking to computers, our eighties sci-fi dreams of being able to command the computer like Scotty on Star Trek are finally coming true, enabling us to make appointments, ask questions, play music and, of course, buy more things. All with the swiftness of a “Hey Siri”, “Alexa?” or “OK Google”…

Standard
creativity, Gadgets, Meta, Productivity, Psychology, Tech, Uncategorized, Work

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.

Standard
Cars, Gadgets, Society, Tech, Transport, Uncategorized

Get a Dashcam for Only £4*

Light Trails

Light Trails

(* plus one old Android smartphone, not included)

I only drive my car once a week, generally, when I visit my folks, twenty-something miles up the A1.  However, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said “I wish I could have recorded that” after some idiot has done something daft and/or dangerous.

Dashcams have gained in popularity over the last few years, overcoming fears that people might take exception to being filmed while driving (ok, maybe that’s just my fear), due in part to the videos posted from russia of often spectacular footage of crashes and meteorites.  Of course, apart from the draw of gaining YouTube views the footage is handy for insurance or police evidence reasons in case of an accident.

I’ve looked at various options over the years and decided that I couldn’t justify the more expensive (better reviewed, supposedly better quality) ones and yet the cheaper ones seemed to get mixed reviews and needed to be powered from the car to work properly.  The problem with a wired cam for me is that my convoluted smartphone charging and combined Bluetooth receiver/FM Transmitter combo setup takes up all the USB charging ports I’ve got in the car.

Then a couple of weeks ago I had a revelation, via a Gizmodo UK article on reusing supposedly outmoded gadgets.

I have two smartphones, the older of the two Xperias being semi-retired after becoming brain-addled a few years back, lacking storage and running very slowly suddenly, for eighteen months it’s been a receive-only connection to my old phone number for texts from the network pleading with my to top up my credit.  But as mentioned in the article it could serve as a dashcam with one free app.

So off I went.  Firstly I turned sync off on  most of the Google services as I don’t want it downloading historical emails.  Next I deleted any apps that were never going to be used again (including, it seemed, the one that had caused its memory and speed issues – it’s like having my old phone back).  Finally I installed the CamOnRoad dashcam app and after a few settings tweaks to save the videos onto the SD card it was up and running.  Two advantages to this Xperia dashcam is a great camera and long battery life – it’s cordless!

The last part of the solution was mounting it on the windscreen.  The next day at the supermarket I found a £4 smartphone holder.  The first test showed this wobbled too much on the road but a simple block of rubber jammed between the dashboard top and the phone holder kept everything stable and free of seasickness-inducing motion.

The only other issue was finding the videos on the phone to copy to the computer but putting the phone in “pretend I’m a USB disk” mode (Mass Storage Mode to be precise) sorted that out – after much head-scratching and cries of “where the blazes are you hiding them?”  Or words to that effect.

I can also still use the old phone for one of the other tips in the article too – as a Google Play Music streaming device with either headphones or one of my many Bluetooth speakers.

Technology becomes seemingly outdated quickly today, the hardware can’t cope with new software, they run out of space, but if you can’t or don’t want to throw devices away or sell them then there are people coming up with creative and useful ways to give this tech a second life.

 

Standard
Business, Marketing, Random, Tech

Everything’s Better With Bacon

Horse And Cart

Horse And Cart (Photo credit: foilman)

To be honest I quite like the adverts for the UK’s EE phone network featuring the always-connected Kevin Bacon, even if I’m not a fan of the name “EE” – at least I can still say I’m on Orange if anyone asks.  The latest ad dips into popular colloquialisms for its inspiration and shows Kev dragging a “shedload of data”.

My first thought was where they could go next with the idea:

“Why you lugging a cart of manure Kev?”

“That’s not manure, it’s data, it’s a metric shit-tonne of data.”

There you go EE, have this one on me.

Standard
Cars, Science, Tech, Transport, Uncategorized

Running on Sunshine

Solúcar PS10 es una planta solar termoeléctric...

Solúcar PS10 es una planta solar termoeléctrica por tecnología de torre, la primera en el mundo explotada comercialmente. Solucar PS10 is the first solar thermal power plant based on tower in the world that generate electricity in a commercial way. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am interested in cars, nice cars.  I’d particularly like a new Jaguar F-Type, an orange one, if anyone’s feeling generous.  I’m telling you this in case you think this post is in some way biased.

I’ve just read yet another article about another designer with “eco” credentials planning a zero-emission or in this case emission-free car.  This one was a hydrogen powered car but others have been fully electric.  I have a little issue with the idea that these cars have zero-emissions.  It’s a case of semantics.  Petrol, diesel and hybrid cars have a pipe at the back that makes you cough like you have a forty-a-day habit if you wrap your lips around it, electric and hydrogen cars don’t, hydrogen cars even put water back into the environment, combining the hydrogen with oxygen in the power production process.

All good yes?  Well, apart from indirect emissions.  Electric cars are charged from the mains which at the moment requires mostly fossil-fuel powered generation.  Hydrogen, although common in the universe has to be extracted here on Earth and that takes…  electricity, fossil-fuel, etc.

I’m discounting the environmental impacts of building the cars in the first place as even the advocates of these technologies don’t deny that.

The thing is that cars won’t be truly zero-emission until we can generate power widely without emissions.  Some nations are fortunate to have abundant geothermal or hydroelectric power resources but for the rest of us we need to look elsewhere.  Nuclear power is still controversial, though the technology is still being refined to be safer in the long-term and new thorium reactors can even use previously created waste plutonium.  Personally, for cars at least, I think hydrogen is the way forward and another emerging technology is the way to make it.  In hotter countries such as Spain large solar power stations (see above) have been built that focus the sun’s immense power onto arrays of receivers which can be used to heat water to drive generators and generate electricity.  If you use that electricity to power a plant that creates hydrogen then the power created from the Sun’s energy is portable beyond the locality of the power station.

To places like this where we’re enjoying our couple of weeks of sunshine.

Standard
Tech, Uncategorized

Tracing Lost Tech

MSI laptop computer

MSI laptop computer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve had the ability to track, locate and remotely disable stolen cars and vans for a while but attaching the tracker to your laptop just wasn’t practical but now, thanks to our increasingly connected world it’s becoming possible.

Today it’s inevitable that, unless it’s stripped down for parts, a smartphone, tablet or laptop will connect to the internet somehow and it’s then that modern tech can call home for help.  Smartphones can be equipped with apps – iPhones have the Find my iPhone feature which can be used to track and remotely wipe a stolen, or lost phone – for Android you have apps like Where’s My Droid, Android Lost and Plan B all of which can be used to find and wipe them too.  All of these apps have varying features but they include providing GPS coordinates, alarms, taking photos with the camera, activating the ringer (in case it’s nearby) and preventing apps being changed – in case someone has stolen it and tries to get rid of the tracker.  Plan B is different in that it is installed to the phone after it’s stolen – you download it to your phone via the web access version of the Play store and once installed it sends its location to your Gmail account.  This last one made possible by the cloud integration of devices these days and being able to send to your device rather than loading things onto it.

For laptops you can do similar things with apps like Prey which can track your device via IP addresses, you can view webcam shots to try to identify a culprit or location, you can lock the computer remotely, change wallpaper, display warnings and notices and wipe browser data, which is fine unless the thief has already wiped the computer.

Digital cameras can be located roughly by searching for their serial numbers online.  How this works is that if someone takes a photo with your camera and uploads it to a photo sharing site or anywhere else that preserves the metadata – all the information on which camera and lens took the photo and what settings were used – then you should be able to find it by matching the serial number stored in the photo.  Again it will only provide clues as to who has your gear, the police would have to approach the website hosting the images to get any details of who uploaded them.

Information from all these sources can be provided to the police to investigate, it’s never wise to try to track down the person who has your gear, sometimes it could work out bad for you or you might end up accusing someone who innocently found or bought the thing.

One thing to remember is to mark gear if possible with your phone number – never your home address as this can show a thief that A) you have expensive kit in your house and B) you’re not at home right now, and they know where you live.   On cameras and phones take a picture of a piece of paper with your phone number and possibly a message saying that if they’re reading the message it means that the device has been lost or stolen and asking them to contact you – a thief would delete this of course, if they noticed it.

Another tip is to photograph all your kit, log the serial numbers and store this information securely both online and printed if possible, again this can help to locate, identify and most importantly return your tech to you.

As many people have said though, as the chances of getting the actual device back are often slim, the best use of most of these apps is simply to wipe or disable the device, making it either unusable to the thief, making their life difficult, or at the very least removing your personal data – which could in so many ways be more valuable to them which is another good reminder to set a strong login password on your PC too.

Updated:  I’ve just been sent a link to an entertaining tale of why you shouldn’t steal a hacker’s computer – it’s worth a watch, even if you’re not a techy person and shows how even not having a login password can have it’s uses [YouTube]  Many thanks Alasdair.

[Lifehacker has more advice here]

Standard
Meta, Science, Society, Tech

Format This

English: 8-inch, 5,25-inch, and 3,5-inch flopp...

English: 8-inch, 5,25-inch, and 3,5-inch floppy disks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people reading this may have at some point wondered why the hard drive in their computer is the C: drive, not A or B, not the first but third.  The answer of course is obsolescence, not planned but natural as technology has progressed.

I remember computers at school where the whole front of what would today be considered a desktop computer was just a pair of floppy disk drives, 5 1/4″ drives they were at the time, flat black plastic flexible squares that needed to be handled with care and would probably today just about hold a single grainy picture from a basic cameraphone.  I also remember the rise of 3 1/2″ floppy disks, the 1.44Mb disks which were the HD of their day – High Density that was.  These were the contents of the now abandoned A: and B: drives.   The problems of getting Windows 3.0 to read a new-fangled CD-ROM drive is a story for another time.

The thing is that today if I wanted to read something from one of these 5 1/4″ disks it would be difficult, if not impossible.  You can still buy external drives to read 3 1/2″ disks but how long before they’re gone too?  Admittedly much of the information I still have on these old disks is past its prime and most of the really important stuff I still have on my laptop today but some of it would be as good as gone forever if I didn’t transfer it to today’s media.  Even today’s storage has a finite life; hard drives die, home-burned CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs don’t last forever although new developments are on the horizon that claim to make disks that last for 1,000 years – we’ll see, or rather we won’t, but someone on a future edition of Time Team will and they’ll laugh at our clothes and feeble social networks and search engines.

Or will they?  The other problem with that old data on floppy disks is whether we have something to read it with.  Years ago we had a plethora of different wordprocessor file formats, spreadsheet formats, image formats and some of them, like JustWrite are as illegible to Microsoft Word today as Spanish is to me.  Qué?   Unless someone bothers to devise a universal convertor to rescue all these obscure file formats then the data is doomed.

I still have the ability to install the old software and manually copy over the text to LibreOffice which I use because it uses what has to be the future of our data – standardised formats and structures.  Many software packages still use proprietary formats for the raw data but can output a sharable and standard format – like JPEG images or MP4 video, whilst many office packages are moving to open standards like the Open Document Format which should extend the amount of time our letters and journals, notes and novels remain readable.  Then there’s the cloud again, services like Google Docs, Flickr, Facebook or Evernote storing data for you without needing to worry about file formats.  As long as the host is still there and the internet is still there your data could exist indefinitely if your account is passed down with the inheritance when you leave for the cloud yourself.

Which is a sobering thought, better get the to do list finished or it could become a puzzling historical artefact.

Standard