Why I’m phoning myself – for 33 hours

At the end of January, my 3Gb giffgaff goody-bag expired. I use it to access the internet from my BYOD via a dongle at one of my clients. I don’t set it to top up automatically, as often, I don’t visit said client for a few days after its expiry.

So I went to the giffgaff site to renew the expired £12 goody-bag. But when doing so, I noticed an £18 goody-bag that had unlimited internet. Wowzers! (It also came with 2,000 free minutes of calls, but that’s of little use to dongle-using Dan. Although as you’ll see, it’s relevant to the story.) I added it to my basket and bought. Happy days!

A few days into my new goody-bag’s life, I received a warning message from giffgaff saying that I was not allowed to tether on an unlimited data plan, and that my internet access had been halted until such time that the tethering stopped. (Neat that they could tell.) I was mildly irritated at that specific condition not having been actively presented to me upon buying (I’d had no idea), but accepted their judgment and tried to go about rectifying the issue.

I posted a comment on their forum asking how I might downgrade immediately to the 3Gb goody-bag. Ah, it seems I can’t. You can only buy a goody-bag if the previous goody-bag has either (a) expired; (b) run out of data; or (c) run out of minutes.

Hmmm. The unlimited goody-bag wasn’t due to expire until 28 February, so that wouldn’t do. I needed it before then. It had unlimited data, so it was unlikely that it’d run out of data. Ever. So I was left with one course of action: drain the minutes.

Harder than you might think.

I needed an old phone, one that could accept the old-style chunky giffgaff Sim card. The only one I had was an old iPhone that literally would no longer accept any charge. So my good friend Bal hand-delivered a cutting-edge Sony Ericsson W995 to my door this morning.

After giving it sufficient charge for it to function, I discovered that it was locked to the Orange network. Expletives abounded. So I took it to a shop to get it unlocked for £12. (Hope that’s OK, Bal.)

And now the phone is sat downstairs connected to its charger. At 8:09pm, it made a call to my main mobile. That call is currently two hours and four minutes old, and counting. To make sure the call doesn’t get cut off (I’ve heard that silence on both ends of a phone line result in it being cut off), I’ve positioned it in front of a speaker playing a Spotify playlist on repeat. (As I type, it’s piping Lionel Richie’s Hello into my main phone.)

My plan is to continue the call to myself overnight tonight, and ideally throughout tomorrow. Assuming no interruptions, my 2,000 minutes (33 hours and 20 minutes in old money) will expire at 5.29am on Monday morning, at which time I’ll be able to buy a 3Gb goody-bag.

Utterly ludicrous.

Nats should be applauded

On Friday afternoon, Nats, the National Air Traffic Service, suffered a computer malfunction in its Swanwick centre. The problem, which lasted for 36 minutes, meant that London’s airspace was cleared, many flights were forced to land in alternative airports, and over 100 flights from London’s airports were cancelled.

Since the malfunction, MPs have weighed in with their views. The government said the disruption was “unacceptable” and demanded a “full explanation” of what had gone wrong. Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin is due to be questioned by MPs on Monday about the chaos caused.

Labour has called for ministers to “get a grip” and the Labour chairwoman of the transport select committee, Louise Ellman, said it was “vital that we establish what happened”.

The organisation’s chief executive, Richard Deakin, has come under increased pressure, with journalists citing his 2014 pay package in excess of £1m. (This is irrelevant, for what it’s worth.)

Initial reports suggest that the root cause was a single line of rogue code in one of the 50+ systems managed at Swanwick.

At no stage in the proceedings over the last 36 hours have I seen any reference to how admirably Nats dealt with the situation. In summary, no one died. None of the planes ran out of fuel before being able to land. It seems that the failover process that kicks in when a glitch like this happens had safety as its core. London’s airspace was cleared – very quickly, it seems – and everyone was kept safe.

Instead, the reports have focused on the dreadful time that travellers had sitting around in Heathrow for a few hours.

Our lives involve high levels of sophistication – from crossing the road at a Pelican crossing to contactless payments to synchronisation of music across devices to control of a very busy airspace above the south of England. Sometimes, the systems that support this high level of sophistication go wrong. For a short period of time, a certain bank’s cashpoints are unable to give out cash; a set of traffic lights stops working; Apple deletes your music collection.

We need to accept that there will be an element of disruption associated with system failures. And our demand, particularly for systems that are integral to an aspect of our safety, should be that we are kept safe when they suffer problems. Nats did this with aplomb.

Yes, ask some questions and try to avoid a similar problem happening in the future. But please, get some context. No one died. Some people were inconvenienced.

Mobile strategy: Amazon vs. Flickr

I would love to understand the mobile strategies of some of the biggest brands on the internet. I am the user of two apps that one might consider to be rather major: Amazon UK, and Flickr. (On an Android phone.) Their strategies seem to be vastly different. And from usage of the respective apps, below is my interpretation of their supporting mobile strategies:

First, Amazon UK.

Make sure you can do everything on the app. that you can do on a computer through the website. Do so while recognising the difference between the way in which people use the different devices.

If you can add a new delivery address on the web, you should be able to do the same through the mobile app. Wishlists, split deliveries, save for later. All of that. Make sure people can do it. And make sure they are able to do it in an intuitive way.

Never lose sight of people’s desire to instruct us to do everything we can do for them while on the move. But also, never compromise the beauty and simplicity of interacting with Amazon.

Now, go deliver.

Now, Flickr.

We need to recognise that the mobile interface is way more limiting than the web browser on a computer. So we need to be mindful of which features we enable through the mobile app.

We can’t expect that the user can do everything through the mobile app. that they would be able to do on their computer. So we need to select which features we enable, and which we don’t.

We need to make judgments on what people might want to do, and not clutter the interface by giving them the option. For example, if someone’s in one of their friend’s photostreams and wants to search, we should make a judgment on what they want to search within.

My view is that Amazon’s strategy is right. It strives for the best, and it hits the mark. Flickr’s is wrong. It strives for compromise, and I always feel cheated when using the app. I am writing this very post from my computer. I turned my computer on after trying and failing on my phone to find an old photo from a friend’s Flickr photostream.

Being a contractor

Tonight, as I arrived at the train station to start my journey home, my client emailed me to ask whether I was still around. I picked up the email on my phone.

I called him straight away. He needed something urgently.

Five minutes later at my interchange station, I got my laptop out on the platform bench and VPN-ed into work using my 3G dongle. (My 4G one arrives next week.) When my London-bound train arrived, I boarded and continued my investigations, connected all the while. Upon arrival in London, I wasn’t yet done. But I emailed my progress through.

I descended into the Underground and boarded the first Tube to arrive, not before connecting to the Wi-Fi with my phone. An email arrived from the same client asking me to call him. I alighted the train immediately, just before the doors closed and without having travelled anywhere, and used Skype to call him from the Tube platform. Neat!

I then took the Tube to my home station and popped into the pub. I had been intending to catch the end of the Italy–Costa Rica match. But needs must.

I got my laptop out and logged in again via my 3G dongle. A quick Skype call to the US helped me complete my analysis, leaving me free to go and watch my daughter recite her Brownie Promise and beam with pride.

As a contractor, I pride myself at being always on. There are rarely times when I cannot be contacted, and usually I’m able to react quickly to a request for help.

I surround myself with tools that allow me to do just that. My dongle allows me to connect my laptop pretty much anywhere. My phone alone allows me to accomplish an awful lot without delving into my bag, and allows me to stay on top of things on the go.

And PowWowNow and Skype (including Skype On The Go) give me the edge. I can call internationally without worrying overly about cost. And I can schedule a conference call without a moment’s thought.

All of this costs money, cost that is not passed onto the client directly. But in my view, it’s an essential part of being a contractor. The extra mile, if you like.

G-Cloud achieving 50% savings on average: what does that mean?

I read a slightly odd article today. It was in that popular rag Computer World UK.

It contained two sentences that while not in themselves contradictory, were certainly juxtaposed.

First, the story’s headline:

G-Cloud achieving 50% savings on average.

And later, this:

Some organisations have saved 50 percent on previous costs for IT services, according to [Tony] Singleton.

I don’t have the data. But these two sentences are far from tautological. Nor is either as mind-blowing as it might at first read.

Let’s take them separately and in order.

If G-Cloud supported 10 deals, the first five reducing costs from £1,000 to £100; and the other five reducing costs from £100m to £90m, then G-Cloud has achieved 50% savings on average. Five deals came in with a 90% saving; the other five came in with a 10% saving. ((5 * 10%) + (5 * 90%)) / 10 = 50%.

In this example, the total saving is 10.0008%. But the headline is grander.

And now to the second. Some organisations have saved over 50%. This is basically saying that two or more organisations have done better than halving their costs. Two organisation may have each cut costs from £1,000 to £400, with every other organisation’s spend dwarfing these two organisations’ spend, all bringing in trivial relative savings.

None of the other statistics in the article gave further clarity on the savings achieved. But a bogus spelling of the word “received” certainly made me question its journalistic credibility, perhaps unfairly.

It’d be good to get hold of the data set used to inform the assertions.

Kindle or tablet? Silly question

I’ve been involved in a few debates recently over why people need a Kindle when they have an iPad or other Kindle-enabled tablet.

It’s a ridiculous argument, in my view. For two reasons.

First, battery life.

My Kindle stays charged for weeks. Literally. I’ll probably charge mine every three weeks or so, more to top it up than necessarily because it’s running low on juice. This is of massive appeal. I can pop it in my bag, just as I would a book, and forget about it until such time that I choose to read it. If I had to take it out of my bag each night to charge it, something would be lost. Something very important.

Second, and more importantly, experience.

When I read my Kindle, I’m reading a book. It’s the size of a book, and the utterly delightful E Ink technology makes it feel like a book. A beautiful, imperfect book, even with slight “printing” flaws owing to the technology.

When reading on a tablet, I’m reading a magazine. Even when the screen’s brightness is set low, the experience is completely different to that of the Kindle. It’s backlit, and that fundamentally changes the reading experience. My eyes are working, not dancing. I’m no doctor, but I expect that their state while reading a Kindle is very different to that when they’re reading a tablet.

And that’s why for now, there’s absolutely a place for the Kindle in your bag, even if you’ve got a tablet.

(Note: I don’t own a tablet. But I’ve borrowed them, from the likes of my daughter.)

Why Macs aren’t for me

In one of my recent client engagements, I’m surrounded by people with Apple Macs. Everyone’s on laptops, MacBook Airs outnumbering MacBook Pros about 2:1. There’s even the odd person running Windows on a Mac—wanting the cool but yearning for the functionality.

And then there’s the odd leper like myself, running Windows on a PC laptop. (From memory, I can only think of one other PC user besides myself, someone whose laptop is the size of a small aircraft carrier.)

And here’s the rub. I know of only two Mac users who appear serene and content in their worlds. Three at a push. The rest love their shiny toys. But they struggle to use them. They certainly struggle to do so in a way that looks comfortable.

Now I admit, most are new to the technology. They’re recent converts from the comfort of Windows. But even those that have been around Macs for a while seem to struggle. They struggle to do things that were commonplace in Windows. Sometimes, they seem vaguely aware that a certain swipe combination will yield a certain result. But don’t ask them to do it, because it probably won’t work.

Now I love Macs. They are beautiful. They’re functionally rich. And when used well, they are poetic. But I doubt that I’ll ever adopt for two reasons.

First, Excel. Excel on a Mac is truly a dog’s breakfast. It sucks so much ass. It feels like going back to Excel 5.0—at its launch in 1993, the most mesmerisingly sublime piece of software you ever did experience, but not so now.

And given that I live and breathe Excel, no thank you.

And second, the learning curve. It’s way too shallow for me to make the leap. My productivity would go through the floor for weeks, and would still be suffering months, quarters later, as I grappled with gestures, and an entirely new way of interacting with the OS.

I regard myself as a relative power user of computers. If I lived in word processing and email, maybe I’d think about leaping. But alas, I don’t. And I so I won’t.

What hashtags are *really* for

I was pointed towards an article yesterday about the futility of hashtags. My view is that it misses the point.

There are, in my mind, three purposes for hashtags:

Let’s take these in order. For a hashtag to be of any use in aggregating tweets, it needs to be relatively niche. Given that it’s made up of a single word or string, and given the manner in which tweets are structured and consumed, there’s little search engines can do to make tweets relating to the #SuperBowl or the #budget2013 of any use to either man or beast. So the event needs to be more targeted to be of any use here.

Second, people can use them for suppression. If I have a lot of followees watching the Uefa Champions League, and for whatever reason I don’t give two hoots about it, I can filter out all tweets mentioning the #ucl hashtag. This I see as useful.

Third, irony. It’s not a traditional use of a hashtag; but it’s one I like. I often use hashtags in Facebook updates. I occasionally use them in emails, sometimes in the workplace. If I still wrote letters by hand, I’d use them there too. (Hell. I may even use one as a reference for #HMRC to use when I pay my corporation tax later today.) I know they’re neither clickable nor useful. But they can add humour. Even on Twitter, I’ll use hashtags that are useless for humour value.

Wife watching programme about women who were convicted of the murder of their husbands. She is criticising them for being “sloppy”. #nervous

So to me, the article missed the point of the hashtag entirely. They’re a wonderful introduction that adds playfulness to the English language.


Flickr vs. Instagram (loosely)

Over the last couple of days, everyone’s on Instagram’s back. As of 16 January, they are allegedly changing their terms of use such that advertisers can sell the photos you upload for their own profit, but you are responsible if their doing so contravenes any laws.

So people are lauding Flickr, suggesting that they’ll switch to it by way of protest, or as a more acceptable way of storing their photos.

But here’s the rub. Flickr’s a crock of shit.

OK. I’m being harsh. Here’s the reality, for me at least.

Flickr is a wonderful repository. It allows me to use a relatively intuitive user interface to upload my photos (and videos under 90 seconds in length). And it allows me to share these with fellow Flickr users that I deem to be either Family or Friends. I can tag stuff, group stuff, and map stuff. All rather lovely. (The 90-second cut-off is rather limiting and irksome, but not a major annoyance.)

It also has an add-on called Picnik that allows me to do some basic edits to the photos: cropping, filtering, rotating, removing red-eye etc.

But it’s not the storing of images that I have an issue with. My issue is with the user experience of the viewer. It’s appalling.

First, my friends and family. They must be Flickr account holders. In a day when Facebook is becoming the de facto standard for online identity (at least for social stuff), this is criminal.

My mum doesn’t want a Flickr account. And I want to share my photos with people I know, love and trust without forcing them to sign up to another service. I would estimate that 90% of the people I want to share my photos with have no interest in having a Flickr account.

And once they’re in, my view is that the user experience is at best, poor. My photos are presented to those I share them with sequentially, linearly. The first page shows my five most recent photos, all nice and big. If I flick to page two or beyond, the pictures become smaller, the 18 photos per page becoming more akin to a set of Windows Explorer thumbnails than anything more inviting.

I can click on any photo to access more sharing options, see where it was taken or to access a higher resolution version of the image. But it’s all so very functional.

To the viewer, the Flickr website has changed little in the four and a half years since I became a pro member, and changed little in the three or so years before that when I was a non-paying customer. It’s vanilla. It’s linear. It’s functional. It doesn’t embrace the user and take them on a journey. It doesn’t give the user the sense that they are experiencing the event, the concert, the playground, the dinner, the airshow, the beach walk with the user.

And it should. Yahoo! has the ability to bring photos to life, to create an absorbing experience that people want to come back to again and again. Montages, full-screen slideshows by default. It has the ability to exploit Facebook’s credentials (and user base) to draw people into its service, while at the same time converting an increased number of users into its premium service to pay for the platform.

Or else Flickr can continue being left behind by its competitors and, with time, become a relic of the internet.

I only hope you’re reading, Marissa.

Google Play Music: a review

On 22 November, I decided that enough was enough. I needed a new music solution.

All of my digital music was residing on my old, largely defunct laptop which I’d replaced in June. It was sitting in iTunes in a library that I was far from happy with, as I’ve documented in a previous post, titled How Apple ruined my music collection.

Now as many of you will be aware, iTunes is the biggest piece of shit ever to grace a PC laptop. I know many of you Apple fanboyz/girlz will wax lyrical about how wonderful it is on a Mac (although I understand that there are even Mac users who hate it). But on a PC, it’s supremely appalling. Dog shit, if you will.

But that aside, the problem with digital music is that it came too soon. People had big music collections. Mine weighs in at a respectable but by no means mind-boggling 5,500-ish tracks. At maybe 4Mb per song, that’s around 20Gb of music.

Computer hard drives could just about cope with such volumes when iPods were first introduced in the very early part of the new millennium. But iPods could not. They started at 5Gb, although they soon got up high enough to cater for my 20Gb.

But then smartphones were introduced. And these came with SSDs rather than spinning discs. This meant that they were faster, quieter and much more worthy of a hug. But it also meant that their storage capacity was limited. And it meant compromise. You were (I was) unable to store your entire music collection on your portable device. So you had to pick and choose.

Even today, over eleven years after the first iPod came out, my Google Nexus packs a rather paltry 16Gb of storage. But that storage is for everything. Currently, about 5.5Gb of it is used for apps, photos and data other than music. A further 2.3Gb I am unable to access (the Android OS, I expect). Leaving just over 8Gb for music, if I so choose. Not enough for my entire music collection.

Over the years, I’ve upgraded laptops a few times, and music has been lost along the way. I’ve restored partial music collections from iPods. DRM-ed music confuses the hell out of me, and I’ve slowly grown to loathe everything that iTunes is about. It could have been so wonderful. But instead it contributed significantly to fragmenting my music collection. (Every time I’ve upgraded my laptop, I’ve struggled long and hard about how to move my music across.)

Now I’ve often thought about buying a NAS. But I don’t really have a N to speak of to which I can A the S. And they sound that bit too scary. So I haven’t.

But then along came Google Music.

Overnight on 22 November, and throughout most of 23 November, my old laptop’s internal fan was in overdrive as the laptop was resurrected to upload 4,705 songs from its music library into the Google Play Music cloud. It was working. And I felt huge relief and excitement. (There are about 400 tracks thereon that won’t upload, but I’m not quite sure why. It may be something to do with DRM. They’re probably those ones with the funny icon next to them in iTunes, an icon that I don’t comprehend and that has no hover text.)

And now it’s there, it’s lovely. I can play it direct from the Chrome browser. No need for installs. Just lovely. Some of the metadata has been maintained from iTunes, including number of plays. (Sadly, the five-star iTunes rating has been replaced with one with only three levels: thumbs up, nothing or thumbs down.)

And while all of the music can be streamed from the Android app on my phone (which over 3G might rack up some big bills), I can also highlight specific music that I want to store locally. And that music has been downloaded to the Nexus to use up some of my spare disk space until such time that available phone storage exceeds music collection.

The only thing I’d like now is the ability to stream to my Sonos player. I’m expecting that’s on its way.

In the meantime, I’m happy. Happy that I again have a definitive music collection, one that is not tied to a device for the first time since I collected CDs.

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