Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Aerial Photography & Video in 2021

In 2021 UK drone regulations are changing in a significant number of ways to bring them more in line with the EU. 

With a number of caveats, Permission for commercial operation (PfCO) is no longer strictly required, although to acquire aerial images and/or video, insurance will be. The law still requires that pilots of larger drones, without PfCO, maintain 50m clear of buildings, people, property (such as cars) and 150m clear of urban, built up areas and do not fly over crowds of people ever, however if the drone is under 250g those rules do not apply, quote 'for short periods of time'. 

Verbatim, from the CAA "The (new) rules are based on the risk of the flight; where you fly, proximity to other people and the size and weight of your drone"

Pilots who have previously passed courses and flight tests might well find that their insurance quotes are significantly less than those who have no experience or qualifications. I have had a quote for one days work which has encouraged me to write this blog and share it with people with whom I've worked in the past. Having acquired an incredible drone that weighs less than 250g that's capable of half an hours flight, has return to home functionality will record super clear imagery in 4k at 30fps, or 60fps at 1080p and relays those images back to the controller at 720fps we are very much back in the aerial imagery business. 

This makes a lot of sense and is incredibly welcome news. The risk from a responsible pilot from flying a drone under 250g within a ceiling of 400ft and within Visual Line of Sight. (VLoS) is ridiculously low. For estate agent work, or a business/school just wanting a picture or incidental B roll footage for a 15 minute flight, passing the tests I did and writing and renewing a 40+ page operating manual seemed like overkill, which is why I left it behind. Although there was a risk the drone may have caught the wind, lost all contact with the controller and flown towards Broughton Airbus, the probability was almost nil. I did always have Hawarden phone number handy though. 

This means any keen videographer or photographer now has the ability to add aerial imagery to their repertoire, and honestly should. My advice to any potential client hiring a pilot, in order to stay legal, you should ensure that your pilot/photographer is insured for the day you want them to work.

If you're thinking your business might benefit from owning a drone to complete the occasional task then to be clear, none of the above is legal advice and you should definitely familiarise yourself for your own satisfactions with the 238 page CAP722 publication from the CAA which can be found here.

Insurance can be obtained from specialists such as Coverdrone. A brief overview of the changes being introduced is available from the CAA publication CAP2005

Monday, 7 December 2020

Google are losing all of their Unique Selling Points.

There was a time when you were looking for a technical solution that Google had a handy and convenient answer. 

Music, Photos and Files. Google had the solution, but as time has passed, all of these solutions are now past their best. Let's have a look at what they were and why they're no longer worth our time. 


Google Music

This used to be a great way to sync/backup your music collection and stream to your mobile device without eating into any of the storage on your phone, Great when storage was only 8 or 4Gb. You could also stream audio, from your laptop or device to your Chromecast plugged into your hifi at 320kbps and browse your collection with ease. 

Google Music is dead though and has now been replaced by the much more inferior YouTube music service. Much like Apple Music and Spotify, primarily it is now a streaming service you pay for. While you can transfer your files across from Google Play Music, the interface is aimed at the subscriber, and limitations on bit rate and streaming make it impractical for the audiophile who prefers to own their digital music collection. Searching through your music is difficult and presents you with the music video or youtube version of songs you already own. It also renders your Chromecast devices useless unless you pay for the service. 

Conclusion

We were conned into thinking Android users had a music USP over Apple. Storing music on your phone again and synchronising with your PC is now the best way to look after your digital collection without paying, buy a big memory card.


Google Photos

Like Apple Photos, Google Photos backed up your entire photo collection to your online storage space at photos.google.com however, come June next year, the storage you had will now be frozen and your allowance will be taken from your Google Drive. 15Gb (the free allowance you get) could last a year or so if you use your android device like most people, you're either going to have to delete your memories, or pay for more upgrade space. 

Conclusion

Again we were conned into thinking Android users had a USP over Apple, and sadly people's precious memories are likely entwined in a service that is soon to become an archive. 


Google Drive

This has been the biggest disappointment as it's been a vital, useful and essential tool for me and some of my work colleagues over the past few years. But by gawd they've created a monster. If you work with people now and you have a large workload, for goodness sake, think twice about how you share it. The complexities of a shared folder are immense. I left a partnership earlier this year and they, and myself are still encountering detritus which doesn't show in the usual 'shared with me' or 'My Drive'. I have removed myself from folder shares, but still have access to all of the contents of items within that folder. I have removed myself from shared items and found others have lost access too. I have removed items owned by other people from my own drive (everything still shows up in 'storage' and 'search') and found it's caused problems for others in the share. It really is a mess. Drive is cheap, there's no doubting that, and for short term sharing, projects that are time bound and can be deleted and moved on by 2 parties it's ok. But for teamwork, it's atrocious, Unless you buy a G Suite package for your work and control multiple logins for each user (giving each user corporate logins instead of their own) then it's hopeless. For freelancers and cohorts it's dreadful. 

Although it's pricier, I suspect Dropbox might manage folder and file permissions better, does anyone have experience of using Dropbox professionally, it is better?

As for Google, I have been an ambassador in the past. For many many years I've pushed their services. Back when I worked in Sales I explained to a fellow music lover who was buying a phone how great Google Music was, he agreed but said something that stuck with me, he said

"It does look great, but just wait till they've got you and they start charging for it" it would appear I'm not as cynical as I thought I once was, in fact I was far too trusting. It woud appear we can no longer trust Google at all. 

Conclusion

You get what you pay for, the shambles that we're given isn't a professional tool, it's chaotic when you come to 'un-share' complex folders with other professionals. It came so close and much of the functionality still works for schools, and business establishments with a G Suite domain. But folder hierarchy complexity makes it impossible for any geek to recommend to a cohort of fellow freelancers, it's just too goddamn infuriating to undo. It's like Brexit, only digital. 

Monday, 23 November 2020

Now Google are going to charge for Photos.

As has become the pattern with Google, the freemium products that entice you in to use their services and devices, like Google Music, manifest to become something utterly useless, unless of course you pay. But now, with Google Photos even if you pay, that service is still going to become useless, until you pay some more, and the year after that, even more and so on...

I love convenience and if there's a solution that offers it, I will usually be an early adopter. Google Music was tremendous as it let you synchronise the music on your computer, with a cloud based service so you could access your entire music collection from your (Google) Android device. That switched to YouTube music, a service that is worse in every respect. Lower streaming quality, a dreadful interface, and no more streaming from your phone to your Chromecast Audio that you bought in good faith.... from Google. 

And the same thing is happening with Google Photos. That superb service that allowed you to easily back up your Android phone photos, is (one assumes) running out of storage space. The popularity has become it's achilles heel, so now you are going to have to buy some storage, regardless of the quality that you upload in (previously Google Photos allowed unlimited storage for 'medium' quality images). Now you may think that if you're a Google Drive / One customer that you're some sort of VIP, but that's not true either. If, like me, for business you use Google Drive and have say a generous 100+Gb of storage, that's likely to last around 7 months. So you'll need more, and as your photos are unlikely to reduce in size (who in their right mind will be deleting their holiday snaps from Lanzarote to save a few quid; no one) then you're going to need to pay more, and more and more. 

So thanks once again Google for leading us down the garden path like Hansel and Gretel to the Gingerbread house of wireless worlds and techno tricks. We must rewind our internet history, download our photos and find alternative solutions that don't rely on greedy corporations. 

So what are we all going to do? 

Well, the good news is, we have several months to prepare, these changes don't take effect until June 2021. Plus it's only new images that you upload to Google that will start to eat into your free 15gb quota. You could in theory, delete the App and thus pause any future backups so as not to eat into your drive allowance. Then go back to the good old days of losing all your images every time you change your phone. To be honest, most of my phone photos tend to be throwaway shots anyway, so If I do want to keep anything specific, I'll probably use a USB cable and the pretty useless Android file transfer. Or, I'll find something better between now and June. 

I'm going to use my WD MyCloud as a Time Capsule backup. My Mac and my External USB Samsung EVO SSD. My time for the next few weeks will be spent trawling and cross referencing the differences between what's in the Photos app on my Mac and my Google Photos account, downloading and importing the different images and once complete, I will export a backup from the Mac to my External HDD. I will let Time Capsule perform it's usual magic and I will once again, have three backups of my images, which, is enough. 

If you use Google Photos, I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, my daughters Motorola Android devices ONLY have Google Photos on them, so they'll need to download the Motorola Gallery app from the play store and think about what they're going to need to do. In fact every Android user who uses Google Photos might now think twice about if they actually want an Android device at all and might want to consider the vast range of now cheaper iPhones. Every business decision has a consequence Google and this one is going to affect more people than your audiophile rug pull. 

Have a think everyone, because this affects 28 billion photos that are taken every week and backed up using this once mighty service. 

Friday, 20 November 2020

Transferring video files without losing quality.

Over the past few weeks and months I have been asked to produce a number of videos for virtual events.

For some I have done the filming which makes things super easy, but for others I have collated clips made by the clients. For some the most convenient way has been to use Google Drive, Microsoft One Drive or another cloud based storage solution, which from a Laptop or Desktop computer isn't too much of a problem. But capturing video on a mobile device makes so much sense, as the camera quality can be exceptional, and when paired with a lapel mic (which can be used with 99% of smartphones nowadays), a tripod and some natural light, near professional results aren't too difficult. 

But unless you're an everyday user of Google Drive, or Dropbox then transferring that video can prove tricky. Using Whats App or Email usually compresses the video to an unacceptable degree. Resolution is lost, sharpness is lost and the effort you put in, to get clear audio, can also be lost. 

So whats the easiest solution to send the file from your mobile device to your editor, without losing quality? Well a client of mine earlier this week used wetransfer from their mobile and the process is surprisingly easy, on both iOS and also Android although it does differ slightly. 


ANDROID 
First point Chrome or whatever web browser you're using to wetransfer.com
Tap Add your files (see images below)
Select your video file using the browser window that opens
Click Send and choose Email
Enter the person you want to send the file to's email, and your own. 

Once you have entered the information, you will be asked to enter a verification number that will be sent to your email. Enter the verification and your video file will send completely uncompressed. 



APPLE DEVICES
See pic below - On iOS again, point your browser Safari or Chrome to wetransfer.com
1) Accept the terms and conditions (might be 2 screens)
2) Tap the Blue + icon and then ...
3) Select photo library.
4) Tap the video in your photo library that you want to transfer.
5) Enter your editors email address, and then enter your own. 



Again, like Android, you'll be required to receive an authorisation code to your email which will enable the transfer to go ahead, at full quality. 

Is this the easiest way to transfer to clients without losing quality, or is there an even easier and faster way that you know about? Comment below if you know another way. 



Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Why my phone purchase gave me sleep anxiety.

I've had my Samsung S7 edge since 2017 and for the most part it's been a solid purchase.


It's a beautifully designed phone in gold, with wireless charging, fast performance, a tremendous camera an IP68 rating, glass rear, fingerprint sensor in the button, heart rate and O2 sensor. But now with my high usage, the battery is starting to let me down. Buying a replacement for a flagship handset has been a challenge. Upgrades should have all of the features of your old phone and then some, right?

Well, I also have a general rule which makes things far more difficult, I don't take contract phones (I have a £10 12Gb 30 day Sim deal from Voxi [voda] which is fine thanks, use link for the same deal and a £10 amazon voucher) and I don't buy phones for more than £500, in fact the S7 Edge was a bargain as I bagged it in a a Black Friday event for less than £380, so finding a replacement for this has been eye opening. The assumption that flagship features move down onto cheaper handsets, well I've found that's not really true. Waterproofing, wireless charging, high quality multi camera setups, aluminium frames and top notch gorilla glass, well that's where the prices stay high. 

So some compromises were needed, and my weeks of research have lead me down a path that might be useful if you're considering an upgrade soon. 

iPhone

First up, I wasn't precious about the operating system, I'm as comfortable with iOS as I am Android, so I could include the new much wider range of iPhone models in with my work. But here's the thing, no one really wants to buy a phone in 2020 without an edge to edge display do they? Which meant the cheaper iPhones were off the table very early on. Then we get to the iPhone 11 and I'll admit, I considered going over budget. At £599 now, these are an extremely tempting offer. But, over budget is still over budget, and the screen resolution, well, they're pretty low compared to others and it's only an IPS LCD display, which is old tech compared to the much much better AMOLED display I'm used to (seriously once you've seen a screen with perfect blacks, there's no going back). So, thanks Apple, when the 12 is £599, I could well be back.

Off Brand

So on to eastern manufacturers. Huawei were out because of Donald Trump, as a Google educator, I can hardly use an Android phone that's prohibited from using Google on it! Xiaomi, One Plus, Redmi, I looked at them all and always found one or two compromises that took their mid range phones into naff territory, and there are so many models to choose from that my work here was in depth and lengthy. While most features, were truly flagship busting, and most were better in one way or another, I found multi camera setups might have naff 2-5 mp macro or 'depth sense' cameras on them, LCD displays (Redmi), they didn't have expandable storage, or quite simply, they were too expensive. I honestly expected to find some that ticked all of the boxes within my budget, but none of them did. 

Motorola 

Motorola have made some amazing budget handsets recently so I thought a £500 budget would mean a flagship killer would be easy. Alas the £599 Edge is indeed a great phone, but it's got no official IP rating and one of the cameras is a meh-8mp telephoto, it's still well over budget and the design isn't quite as special looking as it could be. However if this was £100 cheaper, I'd likely own this now, it came closest of the also rans. 

Sony

If I wasn't working to a budget, I'd own the Xperia 1ii. The first handset I've seen that'll record in 25fps. The perfect companion for my UK (pal) camcorder that would be capable of capturing b roll footage that would fit perfectly into my professional life. But I am, and I'm stubborn and at £1100 this is a bit too much to be considered a win. The 5 looks ok, but no. If I bought that (which is still £800) I'd be constantly thinking how it's not as good as the 1ii..... Stupid names too. 

I considered if I need 5G 

5G tends to add a lot on to the handset price, and is only available in the sea off Llandudno in North Wales at the moment, plus, I don't need a service that could use my 12gb allowance in 3 seconds. I'm still fine with 4G. Speed is rarely an issue for my usage. In fact it's usually more dependable than my home broadband! 

Compromises and non negotiables

After all of this research I realised I needed compromises, I split must have features with things that were less necessary. 

Non negotiable - The new phone must have... an OLED display, once you've used a screen with truly black blacks, and you've seen the convenience of an always on display (that has minimal effect on battery life, because the black pixels are literally 'off') you simply won't want to use an LCD display again. A multicamera setup with no 5mp or less. I need these for quality photos, something good enough to capture B roll clips for my work. A 3500mah battery or higher. Fingerprint reader and an Aluminium frame. Image stabilisation & 4K recording. There, not too fussy hey?

The screen ppi, or pixels per inch is ridiculously high on the S7 edge, something over 300 should be fine, I turned it down to a lower resolution on the S7 as I couldn't tell the difference. 

Compromises - IP rating, although useful, waterproofing isn't essential. We did have fun with the old S7 on a holiday where we got video of jumping into the pool, but with lockdown the chance of that happening again are minute, so it wasn't a deal breaker. Also, as I'd be putting a Spigen case on it, the 'need' for a glass or aluminium back became moot. Although I quite liked the idea of Stereo speakers, they didn't really matter as I thought I'm unlikely to watch a feature length movie on my phone anyway, one speaker is fine for YouTube, which is my main video use on my phone. O2 and heartbeat sensor, they were novelty features really, I can live without them. 

But yeah, enough with compromises.... Oh and I wanted a headphone socket, and no notch, who wants a chunk of their screen missing? 

Back to the S range

So all this led me back to the Samsung S series handsets. Logically, the only way to get all the features is to upgrade the same model, right? The S20 though was well over budget and the S10 is ugly. Although the S20 is only £630 on Amazon (some £270 less than Samsung.com) it's still easy too much, although after my agonising research I did consider just biting the bullet. I saw the new S20 FE (fan edition), a budget version of the S20 with very little compromise for £599 abs was very tempted. Looking at the features, this does tick all of those boxes above. But still, it's a lot over budget. The Note series are ludicrously expensive, apart from, the Note 10 Lite. 

The Note 10 lite


Over budget, but only by £30, a massive 6.7" AMOLED screen, but edge to edge design means the handset is a very similar size to a Motorola G8 Plus, the one my daughter has, which was really handy for comparison (being in lockdown). Avoiding the tediously dull black option, the aura glow has a stunning rainbow effect rear case design. The Aluminium frame is polished and looks quite special. The battery is a hefty 4500mah, the Cameras are all over 12MP and useful too. Telephoto (x2), standard and ultra wide. In addition, you get the best features of the S pen. A handy tool used for note taking, writing on the calendar with scribbles (more useful than it sounds) taking screen shots of portions of the screen (something I do all the time) and doodling, something I've got back into. It's also a remote for the camera (as its Bluetooth) and students can get this with 15% discount via UniDays! 

So I'd done it, I did order it (and found a Spigen case that shows off the back colours), and despite it being delayed by a day (thanks DHL) I'm completely delighted with if. Apart from the focus on the outer edge of the ultra wide images being a bit naff, the rest of the phone is exceeding my expectations, battery life is great, the screen is amazing, the S pen features I'm using far more than I'd thought I would and now I've turned Bixby off (it's really rubbish) it's everything I wanted. 

I never want to upgrade ever again though. However if you're looking for an outstanding mid range phone, the S10 note lite is definitely worth a look. 



Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Hwb email forwarding

So my Mum is a retired headteacher, although you would struggle to notice as she volunteers her time to a local school as a teacher, and like many, uses Hwb.

She does however struggle with her email, as a non smartphone user, she hasn't configured her mail app to use it so, apparently, their school secretary emails her on her personal email, to let her know when she has email in her Hwb account. Then, my Mum will open her computer, click on her saved link, login to check, read and respond. 

Hardly convenient. 

Like my Mother, and presumably many others, I do not use my Hwb email as my primary account, so I have set up email forwarding. This means when an email comes in, I will instantly receive a copy on my school email and I can respond accordingly. Without the need for our school secretary to get involved. 

So how is this done? So for my Mum and anyone else who needs it, it's done like this. 

Log in to Hwb and navigate to Outlook. In the top right, click the Gear icon and then at the bottom select View all Outlook Settings. 

Once you have opened 'All settings' you will see the screen below. 


Once here, Select Email>Forwarding and simply enter the email you would like your incoming mail forwarded to. 

For me, this works like a charm, I get very few emails to my Hwb account, but when I do, I can reply, from my preferred email account quite quickly and simply. 

Although she really should get a smartphone. 

Hope this helps. 

Friday, 31 July 2020

A satisfactory solution to the demise of Google Play Music

For generations before music streaming every record on earth became a thing, there have been music lovers known as collectors. Discerning music lovers who will audition, listen, share, and ultimately 'collect' albums to add to their ever growing library. People who would selectively spend their money on supporting artists they loved, by buying albums instead of paying subscriptions to global corporations who are known to pay a pittance to artists
Collectors total album count are their badge of honour, their knowledge of each artist and history, their passion. In the 1970s Vinyl was the collectors medium of choice. For portability in the early 80's Cassette's become almost as popular (although not for the true audiophiles). Then in the mid 80's the Compact Disc became the long term winner for many millions of collectors and in the late 90's MP3 made it's first appearance. With low bandwidth and small hard disk drive sizes, the best we could realistically hope to convert our collections to would use 128kbps, which didn't cut the mustard for sound quality when compared to a CD. Many turned their backs on the technology then, but some of us persevered and started to enjoy FLAC or MP3's at 320kpbs, which for our ageing ears, is perfectly adequate and on a good piece of kit delightful to listen to. 
The sound quality argument will rage on and many CD adopters, through nostalgia or other reasons have even reverted back to Vinyl. From people close to me, that seems to be the over 50's, but perhaps that's just a coincidence?
For those of us who are happy with the sound quality and convenience of current digital formats, our  collections have become monsters and playing back these files with our HiFi systems, a black art. Keeping it simple, perhaps CD collections have remained the most 'convenient', but having 600 albums in the palm of your hand, wherever you are, is irresistible to geeks like myself. 

Although many Amplifiers now have built in Bluetooth, the limitations are obvious for even the least discerning listener. Bluetooth is ok for portable speakers and perhaps low end headphones, but the compression compared to streaming over WiFi should be obvious, music just lacks cohesiveness and joy when compared to listening over WiFi devices. The Chromecast Audio with it's 320kbps digital output is clearly higher quality than any bluetooth device I've heard. 
For many, many years Google Play music (a free cloud service) coupled with Chromecast devices has been a godsend. But, Google have pulled the rug from under our feet and unless we're now prepared to pay for a YouTube Music subscription, we've been well and truly shafted, in a number of ways;
  • Casting Audio to Chromecast devices is not supported on mobile devices without a subscription to YouTube Music.
  • Quality is limited to 128kbps for non subscribers.
  • The interface is geared towards their library (a mixture of audio and video files for albums) not our music collections. Indeed finding and playing music is downright difficult. 
There's more besides, but there's enough here to make YouTube music a service that needs ditching. This is very disheartening, especially seeing as this is the service that we used, in order to use the devices, that we purchased... from Google! It's arguable that we've been mis-sold these Google devices that are no longer freely supported by Google. 
But, technology has moved on and for a little time and effort, and a new way of thinking, we digital 'collectors' can sate our needs. For years, streaming music from a central library on a Mac or Windows PC using Airplay to an Apple TV has been an option, so you could use that route, but if you've invested in Chromecast audio devices and use an Android phone, the best solution is to bring everything back 'in house'. 
Step one acquire a large capacity, fast micro SD card. The beauty of this happening now is that a 128Gb SD card can be bought for around £20. (linked; the one I bought). 
Step two - transfer your entire music collection to SD card. You can either download your music from Google Play, which can take days, or if you have a local backup, (and you really ought to) then you can transfer that. I have 30Gb which I transferred on to the card in less than 20 minutes. I put it into a folder on the card called 'Music'. 
Step Three - swap out your older low capacity card, if you have a card in your phone, copy the files to the new card, but ensure that there isn't another folder with the same name. You don't want to replace your full 'Music' folder, with an empty one. 
Step Four - put the new card in your phone and find a decent music player that supports streaming. 
HiFi Cast

There are dozens of options for step four, but I have chosen an app called Hi-Fi cast. This fab little app has a very easy to use interface, places no restrictions on music quality playback and spots all of my Chrome devices without any tinkering. Sound quality is exceptional, and it comes highly recommended. The free version has ads, but they're not played in between songs, like Spotify and YouTube music, they're discreet banners on the playback screen. You can remove these adverts and support the developers by buying a one time licence for less than 1 months YouTube Music subscription. It's relatively light on my battery and I thank the developers for their work. 


Currently, I'm in my office typing this listening to Pink Floyd and Aldous Harding. Through my Chromecast TV. Like I might have been using the Google Play App. 



Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Youtube Music is nothing compared to Google Play Music.

The transfer is complete, my music collection that I have enjoyed listening through Google Play Music for the best part of a decade has now moved to the new improved cash machine that is Youtube music. 
The end of an era, the end of listening to albums cast to my hifi at 320kbps. 

So what is my problem with Youtube Music?

Let's start with the least infuriating feature. Finding an individual album (that I own and have uploaded) is now incredibly difficult. Albums and Artists are listed on separate tabs. Tap either, through the web or the app, and you're presented with the YouTube Music Artists you have bought, which is none, so I have to manually switch it to uploaded. If I'm looking at Albums, they're not listed in artist order, but album title. With 10,000 songs, that's a lot of albums to scroll through and loading time isn't great, so getting to 'The Seldom Seen Kid" or anything lower down in the alphabet takes forever. But there is an easier way, being Google, of course, I can search! So if I type "The Seldom Seen Kid" it pops up. If I tap play in the web player. It creates a mix of Elbow songs and videos and plays adverts as well. I can no longer listen to my own albums, in the order they were meant unless I scroll down to it, which because of the loading times, is just horrible. If I search for an album on the app and press play, I get adverts and then the music videos where they exist. I JUST WANT TO LISTEN TO MY MUSIC!

As mentioned, this is the least infuriating aspect. 

So on to music quality, A large proportion of the music I have downloaded is in 320kbps. Honestly, played back on a relatively good hifi, this is the only way to enjoy the MP3 format fully. Play Music supported 320kpbs and sounded excellent, you could tweak it so that you didn't have high quality if using your data over mobile, but I'd bought a package with a good allowance, which meant I could enable 320kbps over 4G, meaning high quality sound and full access to my music collection, anywhere.     
    But, not any more, 128kbps is the highest quality available to a non subscriber, so unless I'm prepared to fork out £120 per year, I have to suffer the lower sound quality. 

And finally, the old Play app that so many millions of us have been enjoying for so many years, used to cast to our GOOGLE chrome devices (see I'm making a point here that google sold us these audio devices to work with our music collections). Google devices that we bought in good faith, that streamed via optical toslink (a selling point of the Chromecast audio) at, you guessed it 320kbps. Now alas, that is no longer a feature for non subscribers either. You can stream via the web player, if you use Chrome, but trying to simply play an album from your own collection here is confounded by the shoddy interface mentioned in the second paragraph, although it is possible, although it'll only be at 128kbps, so won't sound as good as when you uploaded it. Which sucks. 
(EDIT: Update - having finally twisted YouTube Music to cast an album I own, in order (even at 128kbps) over our home network, on 5Ghz, it is choppy. Might go back to CDs)

Overall, it's a woefully poor shadow of what Google Play Music was, and I shall be treating myself to either an iPhone next time I upgrade, or I'll simply get a huge memory card and try and find an audio player that will cast from my phone. 

Very poor Google, you've disappointed a large amount of music lovers all around the world and rendered our Chromecast Audio devices useless. Seriously, what am I supposed to do with it now?



Monday, 20 July 2020

My suggestions for avoiding problems with Google Drive shared folders.

As I have recently found out, having a team member leave a shared Google Drive can be infuriatingly complex. The best way to handle a shared Google Drive is by using an admin account for the organisation.
All of the folders within a share, should be managed by this one account. If they are created by the key member representing the organisation, then the sharing permissions for the folder can be managed by the admin. The admin can remove people from the share, or share the folder or files with other people.
Other team members should not create new folders within the Parent folder.
Other team members should, as a matter of course (for their sake as well as the organisation, upload folders, but as a matter of habit, make the owner of the file or folder the orgnisation's admin account.

If you already have an active share with hundreds of valuable files, between a number of people, then you can prepare for future issues (someone moving on) in a couple of ways. There may be better ways, please do share them in the comments if you can think of practical ones.

DISCLAIMER The following advice is provided with no guarantee of success and assumes the person responsible understands fully the process and takes all necessary precautions to ensure data is not lost.
DISCLAIMER 2 - Google forms associated with Google Spreadsheets are likely to become disconnected using the Gung-Ho method.
DISCLAIMER 3 - Think about everything first.

The Gung-Ho method.
Ensure Backup and Sync is running and make sure it's fully synchronised with all of the folders and files associated with your google drive.
Move the shared folder to a backup device.
Login to your Drive account from a browser, Delete your the shared drive folder and ensure backup and sync runs fully as well.
After sync has completed. Ensure your Bin on drive is empty, and your 'shared with me' contains none of the original content.
The final step is for the admin account to re-upload the folder, all contents will now show the owner as the admin account.

The Surgical method
Ensure every team member is aware of the problem.
Each team member should log into the share and change every folder, every file by transferring the ownership to the organisations admin account.
This is much more labour intensive, and the admin account will likely get hundreds of emails advising them that they're the new owner of content within the share.

Why?
If a team member leaves and is the owner of files and folders within a shared parent folder. When they leave (the share) or delete the folder from their drive, some of those files and folders will be deleted, and some move from their drive to their shared with me, and others will move to their 'storage'.
The work that they contributed to the project(s) will be gone.
So it either needs to be uploaded again (the Gung-Ho method) or have a new owner (the surgical method).

The huge, huge problem with Google Shared folders.

Let's say you collaborate on a project with some people. You decide between you that Google Drive is the way you're going to share the work and you find for the initial period, workflow is good and you're contributing, editing and sharing in equal measure. The way collaborative work should be.

Then as the project matures, so do people's intentions and goals. Maybe one goes on to start and collaborate with another group of people, their contribution to the project was more relevant at launch and now they want to respectfully go their separate ways.

How do they reclaim the space back from their drive. How do they (or you) remove them from the share and how do we ensure confidentiality on future work?

Well that's where things get interesting. Lets call the guy who is part of the remaining team, the new leader, A and the person leaving Z.

Before we dig in, I'd like to point out that I am admin for other G Suite partners, and a Google Certified Educator. I know my way around Drive, mostly. Removing a partner from a G Suite establishment deletes their drive, with the option to copy their content to another colleagues account is straightforward. With unlimited storage, this rarely causes a problem. It's the way cloud storage should work when colleagues separate from a partnership.

For clarity, I use the word 'files' to refer to pieces of work, presentations, images, etc, and 'folder' for the containers in which the files are stored. The share we're talking about has well organised files and folders within folders, within folders.

So, back to our issue. It's now time for a team member Z to step out of the workflow and this is where the problems arise. The shared folder is accessed by around 14 colleagues. Some of the work is owned by team member Z wanting to leave, and many of the folders are also owned by the same team member. Across the folders, there are literally hundreds of files owned by different team members. The drive folder is likely added as part of every colleagues 'Drive' too. That is to say, it's not just in 'Shared with me' but it's also copied into 'My Drive' and using storage space.

Changing the owner of the parent folder to colleague A, (still in the group) changes nothing of any meaning. The files and folders inside the share, previously owned by Z, are still owned by Z.
Colleague Z, although he's no longer able to access the Shared Folder that contains everything (via 'My Drive', can still access them, via his Storage tab.
These items won't show up in Z's 'My Drive'. But they will show up under Storage. In addition, the individual files will show what Shared Folder they're in, which colleague Z can access via the link under Details and Location.

Colleague Z has no easy way to help, and for the existing colleagues there's no easy way to ensure Z's removal is smooth, they can't change permissions on files he owns. If he deletes the work (from his Storage tab... the only way he can access them) they the existing colleagues will still have access to those files. But this laborious process is done one file at a time, and there could be hundreds.

We've called this convoluted process, Drexit. It's that bad, colleague Z's files are so deeply entangled and intertwined that unraveling them is proving to be a laborious and unnecessary.

Google Drive, as of this moment is a truly exceptional tool for multi share contributions and collaboration, but although it's set up is simple enough, it's set down is enough to make people reconsider their options. Folder and Project owners need overall control of everything within a folder hierarchy. Ownership should be easily be transferable and an 'apply permissions to each file and folder contained within' should be a simple tickbox available to those who want to respectfully remove themselves from an existing project folder.

When a colleague leaves a Folder share, the process should be simple, currently it's overwhelmingly complex.


Tuesday, 23 June 2020

E-bikes and why prohibitive UK laws suck.

Ebikes are fun.If you've never experienced one, you really should, once you start pedaling you feel like a 10 year old who's been given a push. If you've ever ridden on an exercise bike, you'll know that the effort required is pretty similar to that of a normal bike, assuming that bike is on a perfectly flat surface and constant. The experience of riding an ebike is pretty similar, only instead of going at a normal pace indoors looking at your wall, you'll be going 40-50% faster, in the fresh air, enjoying nature, sunshine and beautiful scenery. A 10mph cruise on a normal cycle will be closer to 15 mph on an ebike. A slight incline will likely not affect your speed or have much effect on the effort required, steeper and, depending on your fitness level, you'll start to really feel the benefit of an electric motor on your side. But, too steep and because of the laws in the UK, you'll need to be physically fit to continue. Upwards of 8% inclines and you'll be putting in 80% of the effort and sweating, but the (rear wheel) motor should be the difference between stopping and pushing and carrying on. Most entry level bikes sold in the UK are currently rear hub motors, that is to say the rear wheel is powered, which is great for quick acceleration. Models that have motors on the crank (the pedals) are much more effective at climbing steeper hills (because a low rear gear will improve their effectiveness), but they're not so good at quickly accelerating and tend to be far more expensive.
I've been the proud owner of a budget Chinese e-bike for a few years now (pictured below). I've cycled hundreds and hundreds of miles on it; many more than I did in 20 years ownership of the Raleigh push bike I had before it and I'm fitter because of it.

Since I was a child I've always loved cycling, but back then I was blessed with living on the outskirts of the quiet city of Chester. The long cycle up into Chester was a gradual gradient and I was young, fit and had the coolest BMX. But most of the time I stayed on our road, or rode it up to our school.
Now, I'm approaching 50 and I'm less fit, I also live in Greenfield or to be more accurate, Greenfield valley. I can start easily enough as I live on the side of the valley, so the first road is downhill onto a main road that runs the length of the valley from Holywell to the coast. If I cycle up into Holywell, within a mile I have the steep and arduous 'Well Hill' to tackle. Beyond that, I have the climb up to Stamford gate and on towards Pentre Halkyn Mountain, a climb of around 900ft. I can do it, I've done it a number of times during lockdown and I'm fitter because of it. But there are many people who couldn't, even on one of todays ebikes and the reason is because of power.
Uk legislation is currently one of the most strict in the world. Take the US for example. A throttle is ok; up to 20mph. Motors rated up to 750w are ok as well, regardless of whether it's on the rear hub, crank, or front wheel.
By comparison, here in the UK, throttles were allowed up to 15mph, but that regulation was changed, and now the limit is 6..... and not mph, but 6kph. So walking speed, and because the UK government think 750w isn't safe for us, we're limited to 250w. Brexit means that our ebike laws are separate from EU legislation which couldn't be more pro-ebike as they allow 1000w (1KW) and speeds up to 45Kmh (see link).
250w is where the problems on hills arise, it's simply not enough. The cost of ebikes on both sides of the pond vary wildly from just under 1000 (pounds or dollars as, in the eye's of retailers, they're pretty much the same now) to over 7000 or 8000. Yet in the US, if you spend 8000 dollars on a bike (or even far less) you can specify a motor that will make hills, get this, enjoyable. In the UK in a bike shop I visited yesterday, they proudly had a £7200 bike in the window that they were showing off. When I asked about the motor size, and they said it's 250w I just shook my head. While I'm sure the bike was excellent build quality, it was like looking at a 1.4 litre 120bhp Porsche.
For the same sort of effort you'd put in on an exercise bike, getting fit, you could be using technology to help you reach literal new heights and have a load of fun doing it. But with the current legislation in the UK those possibilities are beyond our reach. Our government simply don't think we're responsible enough to own these machines without classing them as 'motorbikes' or mopeds and requiring them to be , improved, insured and er... taxed. But as these are electric vehicles, the tax would be nil, so it's literally just the insurance and approval, that we'd need, which begs the question, should you just get a motor bike, that'd be fun up hills, that would get you out of the house, that would need to be insured, and wouldn't require all the faffing around with the DVLA?
Needless to say, there's no easy way to register a 500 or 750w ebike. You try digging around the DVLA website to do it. I've seen the question asked in forums and the process involves visiting a DVLA test centre to have the bike approved and downloading the forms or applying online. Those eliusive forms are buried deep in the depths of the DVLA archives, in a toilet cubicle behind a door that says "beware of the Lion". Yes, it's a joke.

So the question is why? When the technology exists, when these machines could help millions to get fit, when these machines could help tackle the obesity crisis, why, in the UK especially, is the process for owning this technology so difficult, confusing and prohibitive? Are 500w-750w ebikes the danger that we're all being protected from or are we simply living in a nanny state in the UK under a backwards looking government?

Sunday, 24 May 2020

The need for collboration and change.

I am truly blessed to work with a number of outstanding teachers and head teachers in close proximity. I didn't know it, but I've accidentally stumbled on my dream job, creating ways to educate students on the wonders of technology and digital creation is more rewarding than I ever thought it could be (who'd have thought after 20+ halcyonic years in retail), and helping teachers navigate the ever changing world of technology makes me feel useful and valued.

Throughout the covid crisis, the schools I work in, have coped amazingly well, receiving praise from teachers and colleagues, pupils and parents for effective communication and workload distribution. But what has struck me is the difference with which the schools have done things. Whilst highly effective, their approaches are completely different and I know that these two opposing approaches aren't the only solutions that schools have adopted. There is a massive spectrum of solutions in-between these two methods, and much more perhaps that's overlooked. I've seen the use of Adobe Spark, See-Saw, Purple Mash, Google Classrooms, RM easimaths, Flipgrid and a number of others as well.

Every solution will have it's own merits. Each teachers experience will influence their choice of solution, and that's how it should be. If the solution is effective, and workable, then every teacher should have the freedom to use what they feel more comfortable with. Likewise, each head teacher will have their own methods for communicating with parents, checking in on the well being of pupils and team members, and that is the right way it should be too.

A number of Hashtags on Twitter have promoted more ideas than we realistically need, there are online art classes, junk modelling ideas, programming courses that are free from the government, in Wales we have Hwb, with a gamut of solutions and work projects to explore. Not only are the solutions overwhelming, but there are also hashtags to follow, like #tvttagteam #talkupteaching #teacher5oclockclub and more refreshingly #nobestwayoverall

And it's this last hashtag that strikes the chord with me and echoes the above. There is no best way, everyone is coping the best way that they can, using the tools that they have at their disposal. But I still have questions. What if many of the solutions we're using are excessively labour intensive? What if other strategies are much less effort. It's very likely that many teachers and head teachers are working unsociable hours with few breaks doing work that is very mentally demanding. From a call I had at the end of last week, it would appear that teachers are working more hard than they've ever had to before. The effect on the individual, working in isolation, without the immediate access to delegatory support, (teaching assistants and volunteers) is significant and worth exploring. The well being of the individual is way more important than the immediate need for results.

If you were to ask (yourself or a colleague), is the work you're are doing now more or less mentally demanding, and more or less time consuming? What would the answers be, what would your answer be? Would everyone answer be the same? This is the first time we have faced these challenges, so it's likely some of us have ways that are more effective than others. It's likely when we get back into school, many will feel refreshed and many might feel drained or exhausted. It's likely that many of the solutions and practices we're doing now may continue, and may improve our practices in future, even during term time, and it's looking likely, this won't be the last time this happens. So how do we prepare for the future and ensure every teacher and every head is prepared the best that they can be?

How do we ensure our well-being is given the focus it deserves, how do we ensure we do-well and what's the best way, and what part do we play to guarantee we care for everyone; head teachers, parents, pupils, teachers and assistants?




Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Lockdown - Kids safety for non techies.

With lockdown, childrens time spent online is naturally going to increase, and thus, the likelihood of bumping into an idiot online and children being targeted or bullied is increased.

It seems pertinent to start with the basic facts. If your child is going online to play games in situations that allow players from around the world to join, they will, (as in real life) occasionally encounter unpleasant people. I'm lucky as I am naturally interested in gaming, but if you're not, it pays to ask your child to show you what they play, how they play it and with whom they are mixing. It's also worth noting that Xbox Live and Playstation Plus, despite being for gaming, are not services that are designed for minors. The age for an account is 18 on both. It is anticipated, sometimes incorrectly, that minors will have an adult to steer them through the pitfalls of using the service. But there are ways we can keep our children safe and confident online. 

Online bullying can be incredibly hurtful and damaging to a childs well being, so cluing yourself up is a wise move if you're letting them play online, below I have covered the most popular online games to help with understanding of what they are.

The absolute game of the moment is Fortnite. Fortnite takes place with 100 random players on a small island. 99 players will get shot, the last player is the winner. Chances of winning are clearly low. It is possible to host a private game, with only your friends, but very few players do this. If you've joined a Zoom call since lockdown, a private game is like this, created using an invite, a password and a scheduled time. But the game is more fun, and most players agree, with the default 100 players. This is how 99% of players play the game. There is an open chat room, the age rating is 12. The 'kills' in the game are not graphic there is no depiction of blood or gore. Personally, I think it's a bit repetitive.

Roblox is a law unto itself. I researched this when it came out. I do not like it, I do not recommend it and I would not let my children play it (fortunately they never asked). To find out why, read my original blog post here. Although the PEGi rating is 7,  I found the measures that the company behind the game put in place to be woefully inadequate. I found it creepy and I would urge all parents to steer clear. There is an open chat room.

Minecraft is generally safe. Online games with friends in a closed environment are relatively easy to set up, assuming you subscribe to either Xbox live or PS Plus. But, there is a section called Servers (see pic), where anyone in the world can join in. You guessed it, that's where all the idiots are and where there is an open chat room. Bear in mind however, even in Friends, your Friends Friends are likely to be included in a game. So someone you may not know, could decide to be unpleasant.

Call of Duty is another very popular game, it is rated 18 for a reason, there are graphic depictions of blood, gore and death as it is, at it's core, a war simulation game. Parents of children under this age really should not be allowing their children to play this game, online or in story mode (single player). It was neither designed for, nor meant for children to see. To put it into perspective, the most controversial mission was a terrorist attack in an airport where players can play on either side.

Grand Theft Auto is another 18+ game and really should not be played by minors. Not only does it contain graphic violence, but also incredible coarse language, a strip club with partial nudity and story lines and characters of quite a perverse nature. It is wholly inappropriate for children either online or in single player mode. It too, like all of the others has an open chat room.

It may seem odd that I include these last two titles in this guidance, but I have heard of children bragging about being allowed to play these games at home. I can only assume that parents are unaware that the games are as graphic and inappropriate as they are.

In all of the above games the open chat room (which is live during gameplay) is generally where the poor behaviour occurs, this can either be vocal as chat is heard by each player, or typed. Noobs, or kids who are playing the game for the first time, and performing badly perhaps, are usually targeted, although anyone, as has happened recently, can become the victim, even on Minecraft Servers. Abuse doesn't always arrive in the form of written text, or spoken words. It can also involve players having their creations being destroyed, or being targeted unfairly by fellow players who hinder progress and also cheating.

Practical things we can do. 

Game console live services.
On Xbox Live and PS Plus your children will have friend lists.
This list will likely be made up of friends they know in real life, who have shared their username, and people they have met online while playing. Your child might have added them (because they enjoyed playing with them), or the other player might have added your child, and your child has accepted their invitation. Generally speaking, this can be ok playing online should be, and can be fun.

You could, either advise your children to ONLY play with people who they can positively identify, friends from school and delete the others, go through the list with them, or you could advise them to block (and report - see below) anyone who makes them feel uncomfortable.
You could only allow them to play games with their friends which you could set up via parental controls. The links below should help you, although for the non technically minded, this can be overwhelming.
Xbox Parental controls
Playstation Parental controls

Managing relationships. 

Regardless of my views on all of the above, the most useful thing a child can do is, with your support, manage their own relationships online. They will encounter people who say unpleasant things, whether its online, or in real life. How we deal with these people is not be significantly different. The good news for online gamers is, that some of the subscription you pay, is for moderators to investigate and exclude people who are abusive and unpleasant. It's important your child feels safe online, and reassuring them that these unpleasant people are morally wrong, and will get their comeuppance (if they're reported) should give your child an increase in confidence to expect people to play fair and nicely. Quite often, having a plan for when it happens, is enough in itself to soften the blow. If a child isn't expecting unpleasantness and does not know how to respond, or what actions they can take, this can be as confusing as it is upsetting. Panic, fear, upset can all be reduced if the child knows that the plan for dealing with online abuse is,
A) Make a note of the username.
B) Block and withdraw from the game.
B) Tell a trusted adult.
C) Report (see below)

Moderators can investigate cheating as well as general bullying. Everyone on both platforms has a unique username. These usernames aren't unique by accident, they're registration numbers or Player ID's for each and every online member. Making a note of the username is sufficient to file a report and get the user either a temporary or permanent ban.
For less serious unpleasantness. Simply ignore, and block the buffoons, but appreciate that this is much easier for an adult, and much more emotive for a child.

File a report against a user on Xbox or Playstation by following the links.

I hope this is useful, if you've any additional ideas or coping strategies, comment below. 






How I took these 'amazing' images.

I can only take some of the credit for some of the images that were described by a fellow tweeter, Ken, as 'amazing' last night. Knowing about photography helps capture these shots, but anyone who knows me well, knows I always prefer the easy way to do things, and if there isn't an easy way, I'll usually find one. This also makes it easy to explain to others, how they can do the same. So here goes.

Everyone is capable of spotting what a great image looks like. "Look at that view" and "What a beautiful sunset" aren't phrases exclusive to photographers, we all know what beautiful countryside looks like. But sometimes it's the contrasting light that makes the scene what it is. This happens more in the golden hour; an hour after the sun is rising or the hour before it sets. In these moments, we get huge variations in contrasting light. We have bright skies and deep dark shadows falling over the land, which create depth that give us texture. Our own eyes are incredible at picking the detail from a scene and as we flit from bright to low light, within an instant, our eyes have adjusted to give us the detail from that portion of the scene.

A camera cannot do this. A camera gets one shot to let the right amount of light in, and in a high contrast scenario it will inevitably fail with only one attempt. The answer to this is to use High Dynamic Range, however, don't assume your smartphone's HDR option will give you the results you want, as there are two ways devices can attempt it, and one, is far more effective than the other. A brief explanation why.

Method 1 - Most HDR options on smartphones will take one image and try to increase the brightness of the shadows, and decrease the exposure of the bright areas. The benefit to this method is that one shot often means sharper edges and better clarity. The disadvantage is that there is a lower variation in brightness.

Method 2 - The best way to create a HDR is to take 3 or more images with different parts of the image correctly exposed and then blend them together, which sounds complicated, but actually isn't, all of the shots I create on my phone, take less than 10 seconds. Have a look at the following images to see how this works.


In this image we can see the beauty of the sky. This is what I could see with my naked eye, so I knew there was a good shot here.

 
Without the outline of the trees to help us, this could be confused for a different scene altogether. But we can see that the exposure for the foreground is a little under exposed. We've lost some detail in the trees to the right, but we have a fair amount of detail in the shadow of the hill. The sky however is totally blown, so there is no detail whatsoever. But this, in real terms, is likely the best result we could get with just one shot. In essence, this is correctly exposed!


In the final image we can see more detail on the ground and we've pulled a little more detail from the shadows of the trees, but the sky has even less detail than the properly exposed shot.

So with three images captured, all with their individual merit what happens when we blend them together? We get this.


We can see that blending the images together gives us a shot to be proud of. We have nice white light where the sun is and dark where we'd expect the shadows to be and if anything, this is perhaps more beautiful than the actual scene was on the night. But there are compromises. If we zoom in on the left, the image is actually really sharp. But as my handheld effort shows, the camera did move ever so slightly during the three shots, on the right, the trees look like this.



This tell tale signature shows it was a HDR with three blended images. The ghosting effect is a dead giveaway. But it's a small compromise for such a lovely scene. We could reduce this effect by using a tripod, or a rock to steady our device, but I can live with it as most people would likely not see it.

So how can you achieve the same results?
Find an app you love.

The app I use is one I have bought twice, once for my iPhone many years ago, and again for my Android handset and it's called 'Pro HDR Camera' by Eyeapps. It's ugly, but it's functional and it does exactly what I want it to do, and visiting their website it looks like they have an update available for it. It doesn't take wide images, only 4:3, but it's fast and it creates results like the one above.

I hope this has been useful, if you snap any images using the HDR technique, make sure you tag me on twitter so I can appreciate your work!

PS. The angle is called Dutch tilt, but that's another thing altogether.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Digital music management - RIP Google Play Music

If you're a music lover that prefers to own their music than subscribe to a music streaming service, be it on vinyl, CD that you back up digitally, or that you buy digitally, you may have been disappointed yesterday to hear that Google Play Music is swapping to YouTube Music. While YouTube music is ok, it's not quite the same as Google Play Music.

Google Play Music simply offered 50,000 song storage capacity and a pretty neat app that allowed you to stream that entire library to your mobile devices. There are apps for iPad, iPhone, Android phone and tablets. It was ok. Sometimes it would muddle up your library and put songs in the wrong album, but hey iTunes used to do the same. Currently the You Tube app doesn't let you stream music in the background though, without a subscription, which is pretty lame. You also can't 'buy' music through it, you can only subscribe to the service, like Spotify, that lets you have access to all of the current music in their entire library. Sounds great, but I still prefer to buy music and own it.

Google yesterday announced that they were going to include a transfer button, to switch everything across from Play Music, to You Tube Music, but despite the promo videos, in the App, nothing has appeared yet, plus, the inability to play in the background without a subscription, is already too much of an inconvenience.

So today, I've set about finding an alternative, and I am pleased to say, I think I have found something that's better than Play. The solution seems to be iBroadcast and the process for switching seems convenient as all of the hardwork is done by hardware! If you have a digital library with Play, you'll need to follow all of these steps, if you just want a convenient way to access your digital library from your mobile, follow steps 6 onwards.

Step 1 - Login to Google Play on your computer.
Step 2 - Check you have sufficient storage space for downloading your entire library.
Step 3 - Create a Folder and name it something like 'Google Play Library'
Step 4 - Go to settings, find your download folder and hit Download entire library
Step 5 - Wait for entire library to download.
Step 6 - Visit iBroadcast and sign up, confirm your email address
Step 7 - Download Media Sync Lite from iBroadcast and sign in
Step 8 - Locate your Folder with all of your songs and upload.
Step 9 - Wait for upload to complete
Step 10 - Download iBroadcast app on your mobile device, sign in and listen.

Have you found something better than Google Play Music or iBroadcast, if so what is it?


Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Top Ten Smartphone Tips.

Here are my Top Ten recommendations that you might not know, to help you get the best out of your Smartphone ...

1) Turn off Notifications for Social media - Be the boss of your phone, not the slave to it's chimes, because mental health matters.

2) Clean your lens before you take a photo -This makes a much bigger difference to the clarity and sharpness of your images than you might imagine.

3) Buy a Sim only deal - There's no reason to pay one company for your service and your phone anymore. Check your data usage and buy what you need. £10 will get you 8GB and unlimited social media use on Voxi. My whole family pay less for 4 agreements, than I see many individuals pay for one phone.

4) Buy a Sim free phone - Budget smartphones are now incredible, mid range phones are mind blowing. Save your pennies and don't get suckered into a contract that'll see you lose money if you crack your screen, and on that....

5) Get a good case - Nano technology isn't hype, get a recommended case that'll absorb drops (I've seen this tech work) and you should never crack your screen. Tech21 (effective), Otterbox (big) and Spigen (cool) are all excellent.

Google Photos - Free up Space
6) Clear the Cache - Save space on your phone by occasionally clearing the cache - Android - Settings, Apps, Select App, Clear cache. Apple still don't let you do this, offload Apps makes no sense, delete the App and reinstall to gain space.

7) Back up your Photos to Google Photos - Another space saving tip. If you install Google Photos, everything you take will be backed up. Swapping devices? Photos will be where you left them. Want space on your device, Goto 'free up space' in the app. Goto photos.google.com to easily manage them into albums and download them.

8) Use Newsflare - If you capture something extraordinary on Video, Newsflare is the easiest way to sell it to Ladbible. I once sold a 2 minute drone dance video and got £215 while in the middle of a holiday. Ker-ching!

9) Only charge to 80-85%. Phone Batteries degrade over time. Install a battery management app that tells you when you've reached 85% and unplug before the damage happens. I use Accu Battery.

10) Use Google Pay - Using my smartphone for payments is easier and more secure than contact-less (your phone has to be unlocked to use it) this has helped get me home as petrol stations take payment by it when I haven't had my wallet.

That's it, let me know, what is essential to you with your phone, what have I missed, what do you disagree with?

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

I Wrote A Book

So for Christmas I bought my Mum a computer book from a very well known (slightly insultingly titled) series of books that allegedly make computing simple. Absolutely 100% up to date, with everything about how to make her Apple Mac do exactly what she wants. Initially the gift was well received, but from conversations I had, it appeared to be draining. Too much, and perhaps not written the way normal people read or talk. In the same way if someone bought me a ladybird book about gardening or er, ladybirds, regardless of how well it was written, I'd likely struggle after page 4. It lacked engagement.

I am very privileged to teach and support in 2 schools in sunny North Wales. With groups of both 6-10 year old's starting out with computers for the first time, and more mature teachers, some of whom are totally stuck in their traditional ways of using a computer. Both groups of computer users, make  similar mistakes though, fall into the same pitfalls, or simply don't know, easier ways of doing things.
They may not understand why certain actions result in disappointment or frustration.

So, I've written a book, the first draft is definitely finished, but the title might need some work. It's currently called 'How To Be Relatively Good With Computers'. It's a mere 48 pages, so can be read in an evening and will be just enough to help people use computers more effectively.

We start without a Jargon buster section. If we're talking computers, I need to talk in language we all understand. I try my best to recognise when and why frustrations occur and recommend practical workarounds to either negate or avoid them altogether, while still being able to get what people want done. I've focused on the work that is just outside of people's comfort zones, having come to the conclusion that most of us are now proficient with email and Facebook (or simply don't use our computers much for those activities anyway), for example if work or a club people attend ask them to create something, a newsletter, or poster, or a report. What about all their 'Stuff' too, all their photos,  songs and valuable files? How do we manage these issues competently? Well, some people find those tasks pretty enjoyable, for others, they're a right real pain in the posterior and motivation enough to launch their laptop across the living room. The irony here is that there are dozens of ways, that have been around for over 20 years, that are so handy that they're almost exactly the same on Mac and PC, quite often they will use the same keyboard shortcuts, or the same behaviour in a program  (like double tapping a word to select it, instead of clicking and dragging before making it bold or italic, or discovering why sentences sometimes start to eat themselves if they're edited incorrectly)  it's worth gathering all these tips together to form the basis of a book, (or perhaps form the basis of future lesson plans for people of all ages). Not an overloaded bang up to date book with tips that might change with the next software update, but a collection of all of the 20 plus years old tips. The ones that are still mystical to so many that will likely stick around for years to come.

What are the things that make these activities less painful? That's what the book is all about. Everyday useful tips that will help make using a computer more pleasurable and make them feel, relatively competent.

So far, the feedback has been really positive, Pam said:
"OK Alan....you just made me what I have always wanted...an easy to understand IT bible"
Sarah said:
"This is so good! Really easy and clear to follow"
Jim said:
"Excellent, something I wish I had 8 years ago"
Paula:
"there are some excellent tips in here"

I've also had some support from an old, (published) Geography teacher of mine who is currently giving it the once over. So, it's almost finished, it just needs a front cover and then I'll be publishing it to Amazon very shortly and if you've any suggestions or frustrations you'd like including for the follow up book, 'How To Be A Bit Better With Computers' let me know.

Watch this space.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Skype Meet Now - Full Review


So a couple of days ago, I posted about Zoom being a risk. For being 'zoombombed', to having your personal identity stolen, installing malware on your machine, passing your browsing habits on to facebook and other serious and legitimate concerns for users.

On the back of that, today we tried our first Skype Meet now with 13 people.

In a nutshell, and by comparison (to Zoom) it was very poor. While it only took people a few moments to grasp the interface and no one seemed to have too many issues getting onto the call. People also seemed to like the 'blur background' option. The chat window and the peculiar bubbles that people disappeared into were odd, but ok. Swapping people into the four visible windows worked ok. But not having full grid view was odd. (There is only the option to view 4 at a time, but streams should have been live in the bubbles). People's video feeds kept dropping out (although the sound seemed to be connected throughout), and it was different people vanishing on different callers accounts. For example I could see some callers, but others couldn't. For the most, I could only see 4-5 people out of the 13 which simply isn't good enough.

In addition, people were still on the call, but I couldn't see them (or their bubble) but I knew that they were in the call, because I could still hear them and they were contributing to the chat. 

Skype Meet Now, we have tried your alternative to Zoom, but to be frank, it simply isn't a viable alternative. The technology is years behind where Zoom is and if Zoom can nail their security problems, this 'alternative' will never gain traction.

4/10 must try harder Microsoft.




Sunday, 5 April 2020

Why the time is right to dump Zoom today.



Zoom has been getting a lot of stick recently and not all because of one fault. It seems that there are a number of problems facing the company and after investigating these issues, described below (with links to the source) I've uninstalled the software and will be urging my colleagues to do the same. 
There are better alternatives available without the hassle and worry that comes with Zoom. So what are the problems?

One group that has had a shock using Zoom is a Norwegian School class who's online lesson was interupted by a naked man. This happened because, by default, Zoom meetings aren't password protected and they're not encrypted. He guessed the meeting number and hey presto, he's naked in a class full of school children. Not good.

If that isn't bad enough Zoom yesterday announced that they accidentally allowed their traffic to pass through chinese servers. China has a tempestuous relationship with internet freedom and because Zoom calls aren't encrypted, end to end, it's unknown what content from what calls will have been picked up by the Chinese authorities. A nation highly involved in testing the limits of western internet security. To make this mistake by accident is foolish at best.

In addition the company has been associated with  found guilty of selling data to facebook. Yup, that whole Cambridge Analytica thing is echoing around here again*.

Finally there's controversy around the hosts ability to check and see that you don't have another window open during a meeting via an attention tracking feature. Is this an invasion of privacy that some Zoom users didn't know?

There's the back door that they left open on Mac machines with their software that could have let anyone hack in a view a webcam. Which has just resurfaced.

There's also the issue around it allowing the stealing of Passwords from Windows machines or installing Malware.

So. Video conferencing with Zoom is a mess and to be frank my knowledge of alternatives is limited. But after researching alternatives, there appeared to be one clear choice as a viable alternative, but it was only launched yesterday.

So forget normal Skype as yesterday 4th April, Microsoft announced 'Skype Meet Now'
This works with Skype apps, but the premise is much more Zoom like; with added benefits.
Like many other Conferencing apps, you create a link/invite.
  • You get the benefits of Microsoft team's  blur background (to stop people snooping in your home). 
  • There's no download necessary for people using Personal Computers (although the Skype app [on Mac and Windows] will work) 
  • You no longer need a Skype account - (like Zoom clients) 
  • You can share your screen (like Zoom). 
The code you create, like Zoom, will also not expire. So if you want a coffee morning with friends, then you can create a calendar appointment and use the same link each week (in a recurring event to join together). And finally the call is also good for up to 50 people which should be sufficient for most meetings.

Hangouts - Is Google's alternative to Zoom as it supports meetings of up to 150 (Zoom is 100) It's available as a Chrome plugin, and also iOS and Android apps however it gets poor reviews, their pricing isn't clear and although anyone with a google account can use it for free, it's unclear how many can join in on without paying. It is easy (now) to have people join a call as it can be done by link. Click 'Invite People' - copy link and then send them the link to join in.

Duo - Duo has just announced (due to coronavirus) that they will support up to 12 people on a call. Their website however still only says 8. So I guess it's in beta. There is a Duo App that is available on iOS and Android and you can access it through the web on the link above. It's really simple and it always seems to works well. But I think Microsoft have just usurped it with Skype Meet Now.

Conclusion - Quite simply my advice would be stop using Zoom and try Skype Meet Now.
Why wouldn't you?

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*Footnote - (If using Firefox there's a mozilla plug in called Facebook container that will stop websites sharing your browsing habits with them. On other browsers, most of the wesites you visit will be sharing your data with Facebook, even if you don't have a Facebook account, they'll be using your unique advertsing ID).



Friday, 13 March 2020

Remote working - how we do it at Do Well.


Do well (including Rough Cuts) are a band of professionals who collaborate on a multitude of varied projects. We have no office, so the Coronavirus simply won't affect the way we work as we're remote workers anyway. Here's an insight into how we operate.

Organizational focus
To keep our minds focused on our work, we start with Trello.
We have one board, with cards for each of our clients on. These are organised into columns, depending on the client type, and each has a unique ID. This works in a similar way to a forum. Band members associated with a project are linked to the card (and get notifications about that work).

Our project work
For our collaboration and file storage, we use Google drive. Without a subscription Google will give you 15gb, per account. The folders here are labelled exactly the same way as our Trello cards. So it's easy to find work thats associated with a project. We're trying to move over to Google docs, Google slides and Google sheets, some of us prefer these apps, others are struggling to break away from office apps. But that's ok. What is useful, is that any files created in Google apps use zero storage allowance.
What can also be done with files (sheets, docs, slides) is that....
1) they can be collaborated on live. So two people can work on one document, even at the same time. This is so useful if you've been told to self isolate, yet you have a collaborative project you need to complete
2) all edits are saved and reversible
3) anything can be exported to an office compatible format.
Docs can be exported to .docx
Sheets to .xlsx
Slides to .pptx

Discussions
For meetings we tend to use zoom, this is available across platforms and seemed to be the easiest for our varied band members to get to grips with quickly and easily. It's limited to 45 minutes per call for free. Although calls can be reconnected afterwards.
Alternatives are Google hangouts, or of course Skype. 

We have found using these three applications that our workload is managed quite simply. If there's anything better. Let us know in the comments below.

Simple laptop buying advice.