Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Amazing Smartphone Cameras.

I'm currently chatting with a good friend about their (new) phone options. They have an iPhone 7, but aren't happy with the picture quality of it. This means, there is something wrong.

The first time photographers started taking smartphones seriously was around the time of the iPhone 4. Since then, cameras have only gotten better. So if your images aren't coming out the way you want, then perhaps the technique is wrong. So here are my top tips for getting much better images with your current handset.

The first thing, with ANY smartphone, before you take a shot is to clean the lens. While the delicate optics will be behind a hardened glass cover, the glass will likely need a clean. This simple action in itself will produce sharper results, will cut down on glare or haze and allow the camera processor space to calculate the best exposure for the image. If you use a DSLR, then you will always want to ensure that the lens is immaculate, and your phone is no different.

There is a glut of information on the internet about proper composition - including the rule of thirds, dutch tilt, and diagonals. If you're not familiar with these, have a look at this short video for great examples of the principles, and practice them.

Quite often the phone might decide it wants to focus on something else, espcially if you have a creative composition. When you're looking through a 'mask' to concentrate on a subject, you will often find that the mask is the 'in focus' aspect of the image. In this case, on 90% of smartphones, you can simply tap the screen to refocus on the part you want sharp. If you're not sure, when taking an image of a person, tap the eye, the eye's should always be in focus for a portrait shot.

Although you can pinch to zoom while taking an image, you really should just move closer to your subject. Digital zoom will make sharp edges blurred and dramatically reduce the overall image quality. Avoid it at all costs.

Try to get into the habit of being your best critic. You will always find when you take a number of shots of the same thing, that one is more pleasing on the eye, the focus might be better, the clarity improved, the composition more pleasing. Take a couple, select the best and delete the others.

And that's pretty much it. These 5 tips will ensure that you get better results from the handset you currently have, no matter what smartphone you own! Anything you think I have missed? Comment below.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

How to get free Smart Plugs, sort of.

In the not too distant future, most households should have the ability to generate and store their own power supply. Solar Panels installed on rooftops, which drip feed energy into a wall-mounted battery will supply power to the home. This is a principle recently brought into alternative-reality in the gaming world courtesy of No Mans Sky. (If you find this stuff entertaining, you can play it on the Playstation on a planet of your choice!)

When our energy-ownership world happens, people will inevitably become much more switched on to the power they're using and how efficient their homes are. For now, we're all pretty much at the learning stage.
To be honest, it's only in the past few years that I've become interested enough in our Gas and Electric supply to get the calculator out. But in a nutshell, it's pretty simple maths.
Every device in your home draws power, measured (by in-home displays) in watts.
If you're using 200 watts, then every 5 hours, you'll draw 1000w or 1KWh (One Kilowatt-hour) which is how you're billed.
Depending on your agreement, this could be anything from 10p to 14p per kWh.

When everything was switched off in our home, (as it is for a large portion of the day), our IHD was showing us that we were using ~260-270w.
Forgetting about the big occasional appliances, dishwasher, washing machine, (which run up the bill the fastest and in the shortest time 85% of our bill in fact), I was still keen to get this number down. Using the logic that a 100w lightbulb is now grossly inefficient, 270w seemed like a lot.
So, I made a quick calculation to see how much the 'dormant' home was costing us.

270w x 18 (hours approximately) = 4.86KWh / day or ~ 53p a day.

53p x 365 days ~ £193 per year for ... essentially nothing.
This is around 15% of our annual household bill.

So I looked into the smart plug option. I also had a look into getting a more efficient fridge freezer, as our Zanussi (from the 80s) was getting hot. Great for drying clothes, not so good for keeping the costs down. We invested around £200 in a more efficient freezer and that brought the usage down by about 90w.
Of course, the Freezer isn't always running (although the old one might have been) so occasionally, we'd see a spike of around 100w when it was working. But dormant, the house was now around the 190w mark.

Then I installed some smart plugs, I paid £25 for a set of three (pictured). One went behind the TV, one went to the upstairs TV and Playstation, and the third I put where the printers are connected. We set them up using the Smartlife app (no hub necessary) and then integrated them into the Google Home app. I checked our Laptop chargers too, which are pretty much always on, but from what I can tell, they're smart switching, IE, they power down when not charging - as should all devices really.

The draw from the various devices around the house came as a surprise. The two TV's especially, although these have amplifiers, subwoofers, a games console, Blu ray players and Freesat boxes attached when off, each area was still drawing around 30w. Although it's clearly not as convenient as leaving them on all the time and scheduled TV recordings fail if the Freesat box isn't on and connected to the internet, the net result is that the usage when off has hit the satisfying low of 64w!

Using the same maths, 64w x 18 hours a day = 1.15KWh or around 12.6p a day, or a 41p saving! Multiply this 41p saving by 365 days and we're looking at a reduction of almost £150 per year. Admittedly, this first year has seen an investment of £200 in a new freezer, the savings from the plugs alone have paid for themselves.

There is also the added satisfaction of saying - "Ok Google - Turn off the TV" into your phone and watching the almost immediate effect of the IHD dropping by around 30w!

Sunday, 13 October 2019

How to save paper in school.

If, like me, in the past, you've dabbled with Google Classroom, it's perhaps time to have another look. Although you may feel like the amateur or the pupil again, the payoff is well worth going through the learning curve pain, and as I've learnt today, the kids will really help you through it.

Lessons are grouped together on the welcome screen.
In addition if you're struggling, (like with so many things on Google;), you can collaborate, meaning a willing teaching assistant, or another Teacher can share the workload and you can do everything together.

While the layout of Classroom hasn't changed, some of the functionality has made it a powerful tool for any Teacher with additional benefits for the school.

If you're unfamiliar with Clasroom, it's a portal that allows you to collate all of your school lesson plans, activities and resources, and now it indexes childrens work, provides detailed (albeit simple) reports showing who has 'Turned in' their work - (it's an Americanism) as well as an overview of the marks you have given each pupil for their submitted coursework.

When your Google Classroom is created, you will find a corresponding Classroom Folder that's created in your Drive. This is a good place to dump relevant reference files to that subject. This is also where documents uploaded to Posts created in Classroom will be stored.
(Simply - doesn't matter if you're using Classroom, or Drive, stuff should go in here). 

The layout is the same as it's been previously. Once a class is set up, pupils will initially see a 'STREAM' or flow of information that you provide. The stream is made up of posts, and assignments. Posts can have attachments, links or videos embedded, or just plain text.

The second tab is the (classwork) assignments tab. This is where YOU create assignments for your pupils.
Whilst assignments don't have to have anything attached in order to be 'Turned in' (IE they can be used for simple notifications that must be read and understood) they are best used when linked to a piece of work.
When you attach a document in google drive to an assignment, each pupil will get their own copy of that piece of work. The filename will become a combination of the Pupils Name, Filename. So for example, todays 'Solar System Research' became 'Pupils name - solar system research'.
When the pupil submits their work, they cannot re-edit it, unless they withdraw the submission. (which they can do).

When you open a pupils submitted work, a simple selection box gives you three options (which you can change whilst you have the file open).
VIEWING - removes all edit functions and gives you a clean view of the submitted work.
EDITING - allows you to directly edit the pupils work
SUGGESTING - this turns everything you type into clear marks for feedback and improvement.

Once you're done marking, you can return the work to the pupil for them to correct and resubmit
The MARKS tab in Classroom gives you an 'at a glance' report of all of the submitted work, and shortcuts to everyones submitted work. (See pic)

Marks can be assigned to papers, the default is 'out of' 100, but you can change it, you can mark each pupils piece of work once you're done with it.

This could not only simplify and reduce Teacher workloads (although it will require an organised Google Drive) but it could also significantly reduce the amount of paper and photocopying costs that currently dent School Balance sheets.

Reusing an existing lesson plan, simply means tapping the three dots on the Classroom welcome page and choosing the copy function. You could rename the lesson with the new class. When a classroom is copied, the resources and assignments are copied, but not the pupils or the stream.

In conclusion, it makes much more sense to use Classrooms to create lesson plans, than it does Slides. Which I had been doing proviously.

Let me know your thoughts.

Simple laptop buying advice.