Yesterday’s internet, today’s dependency

In today's connected society, access to the internet is now assumed. Everything we do, from paying taxes, doing shopping, watching TV, doing our job – it's all online, and it's only going to grow in ways we can't currently imagine or foresee. Just 10 years ago I had an ADSL 'Max' connection running into my home, providing a download speed of around 6Mbit per second, and 5 years before that I was one of the first ADSL customers in the UK with BT Broadband able to download at around 512Kbit per second – a huge jump compared to the dial-up modem of the 90s, literally 10 times faster (plus a lot quieter), marking out the very early foundations of the online social revolution.

Back to the present day, and I am now able to download at around 60Mbit per second through my BT Infinity connection (10 times faster than 10 years ago), or was, until my phone line went dead on Thursday. What is pretty much seen as a critical (or the 4th) 'utility' of the modern household, won't be back online until Wednesday at the earliest. To be fair, I've probably got a bit more tech than most, and I recognise that broadband speed still varies greatly across the UK, but in my house no internet means no TV (Netflix/Amazon Prime/YouView/YouTube), no Music (Spotify/Google Play), no gaming (Xbox/PC), no remote working, and the central heating can't check in for weather information / no remote access away from home (Nest), among other things. It is also fair to say I am not going to die due to lack of internet either, but just look how quickly our dependency on the internet has changed the way we run and operate our lives.

It also highlights a legacy that still exists – the phone line. I have a telephone number at home, but there are very few people who know it, and even less who ever call it, but the need to have one is still enforced because I need a fixed line internet connection. We've not got past needing to have a 'full' phone line, just to have a broadband connection – don't get me wrong, I need the physical wire into my property which also needs to be 'maintained', but I don't need the additional costs lumped into the line rental for services I don't use, which itself goes up every year without fail. The cost I pay for broadband should be all inclusive.

Fortunately, I have a mobile phone with a 3G internet connection, which means all is not lost. Although the experience of accessing the internet over a 3G connection feels like I have gone back 10 years (but being very much more dependent on reception), I am able to get a level of access which does not significantly change the way I live and work day to day. While my own use of technology is higher than most, it's also easy to see how most people can live without a fixed line connection. Research into this area is showing a year on year increase in the number of homes that have no phone line at all, as the use of mobile technology gradually negates the need for these services. With the advent of faster 4th generation (4G) data services, and beyond, what can be received over the air is becoming on-par with traditional fixed line broadband connections, except it's with you everywhere you go and not just at home.

Even Google gives bad support on PAID services

(updated: Thursday, 9th October, 2014)

I've hosted my personal domains on Google Apps for years without issue, to the point that I switched over to a paid account sometime back to get extra email routing options and to remove the adverts. However, just today, Google sent out the following email (I've added the highlight/bold):

Your Google Apps tax setting will change in the next few weeks

Hello,

We're writing to let you know about a change to Google Apps that will affect your account for apps.andrewallen.co.uk. We will be changing your tax setting in Google Apps to “business” from its existing setting of “personal” in the next few weeks. After this change, we won’t add VAT to your Google Apps charges, and you’ll be responsible for determining taxes due in your country if you're not an Irish customer. If you are an Irish customer, you will still be charged VAT.

A “business” tax setting means that your Google Apps account is used for commercial purposes. We believe that your account is a business account, which includes corporates, affiliates, sole traders, self-employed merchants or professionals, and partnerships.

If you are using Google Apps for non-business reasons, then you will be allowed to sign up again as non-business account. We will send another communication with details about how to sign up again.

Sincerely,

The Google Apps Team

No contact details were provided, and return emails just bounced. Makes you wonder, how do they decide (incorrectly in my case) if you're a business? Do they read your emails, your calendar and make assumptions? Is a human even involved, or is this a result of data mining all the information they hold on you from across all their services? Oh, and they graciously say I'll “be allowed” to sign up again as a non-business account.

It suddenly feels like, even though I pay for services, I have no control or say over my own account. Even I can't decide my own status. An Orwellian moment.

Update: Thursday, 9th October, 2014

I called up Google support over lunch to ask for clarification. The response was that all european Google Apps for Work customers will be switched over to a busines account setting, sometime in mid-November. I asked, what about all the other individuals who are not businesses, and use Google Apps for personal use, and the response after a couple of minutes on hold was that there will be an email sent out sometime afterwards, which will allow users to switch the setting back to personal.

Why would Google make such a bad broad assumption? Why cause unecessary work for it's customers? My immediate thought is this is some kind of accounting dodge – I am no way an expert and it's just personal opinion, but if Google no longer have to account for collecting tax from customers across all the various countries of Europe, and instead put the onus back onto their customers, it's got to same them some money, right? And with a number of large corporates being added to those being investigated by the European Commission for the way they operate their tax arrangements, including now Amazon, I don't believe it will be long before Google joins the same list.

In any case, the original email was terribly worded and insinuated that it's customers were acting nefariously in some way, and in my book that is totally unacceptable.

“I became an expert overnight” said no-one, ever!

It’s easy to believe that some people were born in life to do what they do, that somehow they are gifted at birth or it’s part of their DNA. The way that they make it look so easy, that their knowledge just flows from their lips or fingertips like it was gospel, or that their power and hold over an audience is natural and unrehearsed. In reality, when you see them in full flow of their ‘expertise’, it’s a common mistake to forget or to not even realise how much time they have spent repeating over and over and over, through trial and error, through failure and success, through sacrifice.

Is it our own mistake, or is that what we’re taught to believe? Today’s modern society can unfortunately deceive those who wish to take on a new skill or ability, with promises of success without the effort, achievements without the commitment, and reward without the risk. In turn, this causes those who fall at the first hurdle all too easily to give up and lose hope, never again opening up the opportunity to understand their own potential.

The truth is, anyone can achieve what they want in life by committing themselves to that outcome. Whatever it is you’re trying to learn or the goal you want to achieve, the investment of time in repeated rehearsal and then taking inspiration from failure (because there will be many opportunities), are two key ingredients for success.

For myself, I’ve learned that the only way to know, is to try. How do you know if you can, if you never try?

Back at school I used to dread those afternoon cross-country runs, since it meant trudging through the rain for a hour, trying to keep up with those who seemed to otherwise enjoy the experience. I couldn’t see the point, and found relief on returning to warm up with a hot shower, quickly forgetting what just took place. Or perhaps they understood. Not the meaning of today’s running experience, but the longer term benefits of running every week. The repeated experience – each time making small progress, small improvements, growing their ability.

Earlier this year I decided to put a stake in the ground and conquer my aversion to running – if there is one event that needs to be done, it’s the London Marathon. If there is a reason to run, it’s to see if it’s possible to run that 26.2 mile distance, as someone who has always avoided the experience all together. How hard could it be? How far I could run, how long, how quickly? It is something that is unknown to me, as I had not tested myself, or tried.

The first few times I felt like dying since my body was quite rejecting the idea. Sitting in a chair all day it seemed, was much easier, less effort, more reward. But pushing through, and doing it again, different day, different place. Even after the first few weeks, stop start, walking to running, I began to see an improvement. Small progress, small improvements, growing my ability. Encouraged, I looked for ways to keep focused, building a habit, maintaining consistency, as I was living proof that the only way to improve is to repeat, over and over and over.

It’s still a good 6 months away, but with the targets I’ve set, using the tools I’ve found to help me out along the way, I should be on target to complete the marathon within a reasonable time. To be honest, I am not looking to set the world on fire, as It isn’t about showing to other people what I can do. Just being able to complete it at all is proving to myself, that I can, because I tried.

 

 

Man of the match, and his future self

The autumn weather has today arrived in full force, ensuring that Ben's first under 7's friendly was a truly muddy affair. With some good enthusiasm across the whole team, though having lost to a number of goals in the first half, a really good goal run down the field by Ben's best friend really lifted the spirits of the team, even as the heavy rain kicked in the second half. With Ben sitting in goal, maintaining his smile throughout, I did my bit by shouting with all the other dads from the sidelines, which obviously made a huge difference to game. After the final whistle, although thoroughly soaked to the skin, Ben was rewarded with the man of the match trophy for his efforts.

The truth is, while I have never been a follower of football even though throughout my own schooling it was a major part of the sports program, I can the see benefits it brings to Ben with the experiences of team play, communication, and commitment that are building important foundation skills for later in life. What was preached by our own parents seems obvious now, but when you're young and free from the realities of the world, the bigger picture just isn't clear.

As a parent, my role isn't written down as a set of neatly printed instructions – to be honest there is a heavy dose of creativity required. It's a bit like buying a new flat-pack unit where the instructions are in chinese – just when you think you've figured it out, you've actually put the shelf on backwards. Then when you feel like giving up because it's taken so much time already, you just push through and make the pieces fit, because it's the end result that matters.

 

Can I teach my kids to code? [Part 1]

With the change in air outside here in the UK and Autumn really beginning to kick in after the extended warm weather in September, it’s time to recognise that keeping the kids shut outside is no longer a humain method of childcare – besides, thawing a wet, cold child is not a peaceful affair, and certainly doesn’t afford the appropriate investment of time. In a shear stroke of conincidence, the fruits of a kickstarter campaign I joined last year has just been delievered through my mailbox this week, which will again bring a sense of peace and calm to the household, at least if only for one day.

Good things come in small packages, which seems to hold true at least for this boxed up modern day electronics kit, as after taking out the bright orange box from the bland brown packaging, then sliding out the beige box within, the colourful picture of the printed circuit board on the front is revealed. With what appears to be an Apple like attention to detail, the front edge of the box lifts up, held in place with a satisfyingly gripy magentic strip hidden away inside the cardboard interior, the neatly organised interior is finally exposed.

Nestled inside the top are a couple of manuals and sheets of stickers, while the rest is divided into different sections, each securly holding the various components and cables required to build out the computer itself. Since this is a UK version, it’s been supplied with an approriate mains adapter, but otherwise requires that you supply the monitor or display, which does need to sport an HDMI connection.

Since it would defeat the purpose, I’ve managed to resist chucking out the manuals (who RTFMs anyway?) and slaming it all together myself, but instead had a quick flick through the coding manual to identify that my kids will be well and truely absorbed by the Minecraft section. It looks like it I might already be calling mission accomblished on the quiet household front, since Minecraft has held their attention for many hours along with their friends, and to be honest some of the results of their virtual construction is very, very, impressive.

Closing back up the box ready for Sunday, the true test will be keeping them from fighting over who gets to touch it first.

 

Productivity on the Mac: aText

Recently I’ve been looking at a number of ways to improve productivity – this includes changing the way I work, live, and operate, but some of these improvements can be done in small steps as well. Having switched back to Mac at the end of last year as my primary device for work and play (the biggest improvements gained were through choosing high quality hardware with an SSD drive, by the way!) I have since built up a useful collection of software utilities which make those small improvements in productivity.

The latest of these is called aText, which I came across when originally looking at start using TextExpander. In simple terms, it will replace text automatically with pre-defined text, which you configure within the app. How is that useful? It takes some getting used to, but if you spent anytime thinking about it, you’ll find that you regularly type the same particular phrases all day long – this app allows you to, for example, type ‘tkvm’ in any application, and aText will replace that with ‘Thank you very much’.

Not an immediately obvious benefit, but as I’ve began to populate aText with business names, people, products, I do find myself writing emails, documents, meeting notes much quicker. In Evernote I recently built a template note which I use to document all my meetings – using aText, I can now quickly include attendees (e.g. ‘AA*’ becomes ‘Andrew Allen’), add dates (‘ddate’ becomes ‘Friday, 23 May 2014’), include timings (‘ttime’ becomes ’13:56’) etc.

Arranging meetings and including the conference bridge details is quick as well. I’ve setup ‘bridge*’ to be automatically replaced with:

To join the teleconference:

United Kingdom: 0800 xxxxxxx (freephone) or 0203 xxxx xxx
United States: 855 xxx xxxx (toll-free) or 404 xxx xxxx
Conference Code: 7785xxxxxx#

To view all global dial-in numbers, please click the link:
https://www.tcconline.com/offSite/OffSiteController.jpf?cc=7785xxxxxx

So why aText? Like I mentioned above, I was looking to use TextExpander as I heard it described on a recent productivity podcast, but I couldn’t justify ~$35 – fortunately a few Google searches later, I came across aText, which provides pretty much the same functionality and at only $5 on the App Store, it was a no brainer.

Archiving on Microsoft Outlook 2010

Google Apps is my primary choice for email at home, however Microsoft Outlook 2010 is the staple mail client supplied on my corporate laptop. We’re pretty lucky as the mailbox limit is pretty large, compared to all previous organisations I’ve worked for – I’ve had anything from 50MB, to 150MB on average, but even my current 2GB limit won’t hold everything. Since starting at Savvis in 2011, I’ve adopted an archive everything policy, rather than deleting any messages – this has been and continues to be a very useful source of information, as a record of all previous conversations, but also as a reference library.

The downside to effectively keeping everything you send and receive, is that it has a constantly growing storage requirement – the old data needs to be taken out of the mailbox, and stored off-line in PST files. If you’ve ever used archiving in Outlook, something you may not have realised is that messages are archived based on their received date and the last modified date and time, whichever is later. This is a problem in the way I work since I move messages between folders and update categories on a regular basis, all of which affects the last modified date. I’ve have also recently been trialling Taglocity and re-tagging a lot of mail which has ended up changing the last modified date on 95% of mail currently in my mailbox – when I ran an archive on all mail over 3 months old, hardly any mail was moved out to the archive.

Fortunately, it is possible to change the default behaviour by adding the following registry key:

Key: HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\14.0\Outlook\Preferences
Name: ArchiveIgnoreLastModifiedTime
Type: DWORD
Value: 1

This will remove the check against last modified date, and only check against the received date when processing messages as part of the archive process. In Outlook 2010, this feature was added in KB2516474, so you need to make sure to have this patch installed. Once I had made this change and re-ran archive, 600MB of data was now moved out to my local PST. More information on this registry change can be found in KB2553550.