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).