Reeling in the Tears

I recently came into possession of a rather curious looking spool of tape when going through some old things belonging to my Dad. This surprise discovery (which, amazingly, he never thought to mention when he was alive) was initially met with a mixture of curiosity and excitement, but then tinged with sadness as I remembered he is no longer around to ask about its origins or contents.

Of course the curiosity soon got the better of me and I felt I owed it to him to find out what was on it anyway, considering he had clearly safeguarded it for the better part of 50 years. I therefore set about finding a way to have it converted to some form of modern digital media.

I began by contacting a friend who had recently converted some vintage video reels of the same shape and size, and while he was able to confirm that I was in possession of a Reel-to-Reel Audio tape, he did not himself possess a suitable playing device and neither did any of his hobbyist friends. Fortunately, The Force is strong in this one and so we kept trying.

I then decided to try my luck on the I Am Waterford Facebook page (home to some 20,000 Waterford natives) and was greeted with a delightful array of helpful suggestions, a sizeable majority of which were directing me towards one person, Gary Burns (Audio Visual Technical Officer at Waterford Institute of Technology), who later chimed in himself and offered to do the conversion for me.

As we both live in the same town, I was able to hand over the reel the following day, and within a few days of that I found myself downloading an audio file with the contents of the reel in all its crackly glory – all 35 minutes of it!

Naturally, the anticipation at this point was sky high and indeed, I took a quiet moment to prepare for an emotional reveal. After all, no matter what was on this reel, it was put there for a reason and that reason alone represented an insight into a part of my father’s life that I knew nothing about until that very moment. I consider myself very lucky to have that opportunity, as those in my position will no doubt understand.

So what was on the reel, I hear you ask? Well, I had given this some thought during the previous few days and thought it might have been a recording of him (or his family) singing or playing the accordion, or perhaps a recording of someone describing some of the video reel footage I’d converted some years earlier.

In the end, it was actually none of the above and instead was a collection of 14 songs recorded from the radio, ranging from 1969 to 1974. There were occasional hints of the voice of Brendan Balfe along the way (a popular RTE Radio presenter at that time), so I’m assuming it was his radio show that was being recorded.

Here is a full catalog of the extracted from the reel, which was derived after several hours of painstaking listening for recognisable lyrics, against a backdrop of electrical noise and melodic crackling. I’ve linked each one to a YouTube video of the original song for you to enjoy also:

  1. No Matter How I Try (Gilbert O’Sullivan @ 1971)
  2. Goin’ Down (Jeff Beck @ 1972)
  3. Sing a Song of Freedom (Cliff Richard @ 1974)
  4. Soley Soley (Middle of the Road @ 1971)
  5. Softly Whispering I Love You (Congregation @ 1972)
  6. The Sunset Years of Life (Slim Dusty @ 1965)
  7. Cotton Fields Back Home (Credence Clearwater Revival @ 1969)
  8. Big Strong Man (The Wolfe Tones @ 1970)
  9. You Can Get It If You Really Want (Desmond Dekker @ 1970)
  10. I’ll Take Care of Your Cares (Frankie Laine @ 1967)
  11. I Will Follow You (Dana @ 1970)
  12. Sweetheart (Engelbert Humperdinck @ 1971)
  13. Banquet for the World (Freshmen @ 1970
  14. Which Way You Goin’ Billy (Poppy Family @ 1969

Apart from the curious variety in musical styles (and fashion), I was actually rather impressed with the coolness of some of the tracks, especially Jeff Beck and Credence Clearwater Revival. He certainly kept a few of those guilty pleasures quiet for all the years that he instead lauded the dulcet tones of Foster & Allen!

All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable, albeit very emotional, few days that, thanks to the help of people I had never even known one week before, is now set to become part of a new chapter in our family memorabilia that I hope will last for another 50 years, and more.

Thanks Dad, and thanks Gary!

Building a Cloud while in the Clouds

So you’re heading to the US for some business meetings with your Chief Architect then you get upgraded to business class where there’s free WiFi and you’ve got 6 hours to kill. You options are watch movies (seen them all before), drink wine (a given) and/or have an in-flight hackathon to test out the quality of the WiFi.

And so we did just that and went ahead and provisioned an instance of the latest Aerogear Mobile Services powered by OpenShift Origin, resulting in very own cloud platform built in the clouds!

Indeed, the Internet connection was spotty at best but in between the spottiness, our installer script did run to completion…

…and we did (eventually) get the all-elusive OpenShift Console with the Mobile tab in all it’s beautiful glory.

We also needed to get very creative in order to share the screen shots (which involved USB-C cables and several other travel accessories that only an Architect and Director would have) despite physically sitting beside each other, but such is life. And for good measure, we also published this blog article from the air!

So what have you done to test your in-flight WiFi and how was it for you?

More Effective Meetings with Google G Suite

There are plenty of spirited articles that outline techniques for more effective and efficient meetings. But assuming you’ve done the basics that the theorists recommend, how can modern software tools help you squeeze that little bit of extra time and effort out of your meetings?

In this blog post, I’ll show you some simple tips on how to use Google’s G Suite (a.k.a. Google Docs) to reduce the running time of your meetings, efficiently identify and assign actions, as well as ways for attendees to get more value from the meeting and track what actions were assigned to them (at this and other meetings they attended).

And please don’t be tempted to give up after reading the first 1-2 items, thinking you know this stuff already. Trust me, the rest of them will be worth it.

Google G Suite

Originally named Google Docs, G Suite is the current name of Google’s web-hosted productivity software offering. Along with the usual Email (Gmail) and File Sharing (Drive) services, it also comes with a variety of “office” software products, including (but not limited to) Docs, Sheets and Slides, each of which support a wide range of very neat collaboration features.

There are, of course, similar offerings from other vendors but I’ve not used those as much as G Suite. But enough about thats, let’s get your efficiency up!

1) Sharing

Because Google Docs are stored in the Google Cloud (and not on your local laptop), more than one person can access them at the same time. And in terms of what these people (a.k.a. collaborators) can do, they:

  • Can View – people can see/read the contents of the document but cannot change it.
  • Can Comment – people can see the contents of the document, can make comments on that content but cannot make changes to the document itself. Their changes need to be reviewed (and approved) by the document owner.
  • Can Edit – people can edit the document directly themselves, or make comments on content created by others.

So assuming that you’ve already/recently created a Google Doc to track your meeting(s), and assuming you’ve outlined a very basic agenda therein, the first thing you should do is share that document with the others attendees, giving them Edit access.

That way, they can add their comments/updates ahead of time and give a verbal update during the meeting instead. Not only will this be a more engaging experience for them and others (allowing for a more focused discussion) but it will also save the chairperson the time of having to minute their verbal update, which will keep the meeting moving along. This could also give the chairperson just enough time to record actions relevant to those updates there and then, also saving them time after the meeting.

Once the meeting has concluded and once you’ve made any final adjustments to the notes/actions, you should then share the document to the final, wider audience with Can Comment access. This will automatically alert them that the meeting notes are available for review, but also allow them to ask any follow-up questions they might have but without consuming the time of all the original attendees – just the document owner.

2) Comments

Anyone with Can Edit or Can Comment access to a Google Doc can select sections of text and make a comment about them. These comments are then recorded in the document for others to see (or respond to). The document owner is also alerted (by email or mobile alert) when a comment is made in one of their documents.

It’s also possible to reference another collaborator when making a comment in a document (assuming they have access to the document). This can be done by referencing their email address (with a plus symbol before it) in the comment body. In this case, that collaborator will also receive an alert (as will the owner).

Once a comment thread (or discussion) has concluded (i.e. the question has been answered), the document owner can Resolve the comment, after which it will no longer be visible. It will always be recorded in the document history but only visible to the document owner thereafter.

3) Introducing Action Items

This is where it begins to get really interesting, so thanks for sticking with us until now.

In more recent updates to G Suite, Google enhanced the commenting functionality so that when referencing another collaborator you have the option to Assign the comment as an Action Item to them. The difference between this and an ordinary comment may not be entirely obvious yet, but keep reading and you’ll see the value shortly.

4) Auto-Assignment of Action Items

In order to initiate a regular comment (or Action Item) in a document, you first need to select some text, choose the Insert, Comment menu option, address the intended collaborator and tick the to option to Assign as Task. That’s a lot of typing and clicking, when you’re otherwise trying to listen to meeting attendees give verbal updates and transpose those into appropriate notes and actions (for them or others).

Fortunately, G Suite has a very clever feature that can help (subject to certain conditions). If the document owner (or another collaborator with Edit access) phrases an update to the document in a certain way (e.g. “John to follow up with the Sales team”) and the document has been explicitly shared with someone called John, then G Suite will automatically attempt to assign that piece of text as an Action Item to John (prompting you first of course).

This is not only another excellent time saver but another reason to share the document ahead of time (to the right people). It’s also a strong incentive to be more prescriptive and succinct in your narrative as the meeting chairperson.

5) Revealing and Reviewing Your Action items

So you and your colleagues are a few weeks into your new G Suite regime and you’ve personally chaired a good few meetings and attended several others. And in doing so, you know you’ve amassed a sizeable number of action items but have no idea which documents they’re in or how to find them (since your last browser restart did not preserve your open tabs).

So give this a try instead:

  1. Go to your Google Drive home page.
  2. In the Search box at the top, enter the criteria: followup:actionitems (or click the Search Options, scroll to the bottom and select the Follow up drop-down menu and select the Action items only option).
  3. Voila! You now have a list of all Google Docs where there’s an action on you (including ones not owned by you).

Note that this does not work for ordinary comments – you need to be sure that the original comments were Assigned as Action Items in their respective documents.

You’re Welcome!

A Simple Model for Managing Change Windows

One of the more common things we do in the Cloud Operations team at Red Hat Mobile is facilitate changes to environments hosted on the Red Hat Mobile Application Platform, either on behalf of our customers or for our own internal operational purposes.

These are normally done within what is commonly known as a “Change Window”, which is a predetermined period of time during which specific changes are allowed to be made to a system, in the knowledge that fewer people will be using the system or where some level of service impact (or diminished performance) has been deemed acceptable by the business owner.

We have used a number of different models for managing Change Windows over the years, but one of our favourite approaches (that adapts equally well to both simple and complex changes and that is easy for our customers and internal stakeholders to understand) is this 5-phase model.

Planning

The planning phase is basically about identifying (and documenting) a solid plan that will serve as a rule book for all the other elements in this model (below). In addition to specifying the (technical) steps required to make (and validate) the necessary changes, your plan should also include additional (non-technical) information that you will most likely need to share externally so as to set the appropriate expectations with the affected users. This includes specifying:

  • What changes are you planning to make?
  • When are you proposing to make them?
  • How long will they take to complete?
  • What will the impact (if any) be on the users of the system before, during and after the changes are made?
  • Is there anything your customers/users need to do beforehand or afterwards?
  • Why are you making these changes?

Your planning phase should also include a provision for formally communicating the key elements of your plan (above) with those interested in (or affected by) it.

Commencement

The commencement phase is about executing on the elements of your plan that can be done ahead of time (i.e. in the hours or minutes before the Change Window formally opens) but that do not involve any actual changes.

Examples include:

  1. Capturing the current state of the system (before it is changed) so that you can verify the system has returned to this state afterwards.
  2. Issuing a final communication notice to your users, confirming that the Change Window is still going ahead.
  3. Configuring any monitoring dashboards so that the progress (and impact) of the changes can be analysed in real time once they commence.

The commencement phase can be a very effective way to maximise the time available during the formal Change Window itself, giving you extra time to test your changes or handle any unexpected issues that arise.

Execution

The execution phase is where the planned changes actually take place. Ideally, this will involve iterating through a predefined set of commands (or steps) in accordance with your plan.

One important mantra which has stood us in good stead here over the years is, “stick to the plan”. By this we mean, within reason, try not to get distracted by minor variations in system responses which could consume valuable time, to the point where you run out of time and have to abandon (or roll back) your changes.

It’s also strongly recommended that the input to (and outputs from) all commands/steps are recorded for reference. This data can be invaluable later on if there is a delayed impact on the system and steps need to be retraced.

Validation

Again this phase should be about iterating through a predefined set of verification steps that may include examining various monitoring dashboards, running automated acceptance/regression test tooling, all in accordance with two very basic principles:

  1. Have the changes achieved what they were designed to (i.e. does the new functionality work)?
  2. Have there been any unintended consequences of the changes (i.e. does all the old functionality still work, or have you broken something)?

Again, it’s very important to capture evidence of the outcomes from validation phase, both as evidence to confirm the changes have been completed successfully and that the system has returned to it’s original state.

All Clear

This phase is very closely linked to the validation phase but is slightly more abstract (and usually less technical) in nature. It’s primary purpose is to act as a higher-level checklist of tasks that must to be completed, in order that the final, formal communication to the customer (or users) can be sent, confirming that the work has been completed and verified successfully.

 

Google Apps free account limit being reduced

If you’ve been considering moving your domain to Google Apps, and you are likely to need more than 10 accounts, you might want to consider moving before 10 May 2011 as they are tightening the rules on the maximum number of user accounts you can have on the free account from that date.

Here’s the official announcement I received from Google earlier today:

We recently announced upcoming changes to the maximum number of users for Google Apps. We want to let you know that, as a current customer, the changes will not affect you.

As of May 10, any organization that signs up for a new account will be required to use the paid Google Apps for Business product in order to create more than 10 users. We honor our commitment to all existing customers and will allow you to add more than 10 users to your account for xxxxx.com at no additional charge, based on the limit in place when you joined us.

Still though, a 10 user limit is probably good enough for most personal uses and to be fair, $50 per user per year, it’s still very good value for money.

Samsung Galaxy Tab: First Thoughts

I got the opportunity to borrow a brand new Samsung Galaxy Tab for a day this week. Nice!

The extra screen real estate really make a lot of difference when you’re trying to stay in contact with the office, and I setting up my Google account on it was a complete breeze (as it us on it’s aby brother, the Galaxy S). The absence of the physical buttons across the bottom on the front screen took a little getting used to but the power button on the side began to work better for me as the day wore on. They’ve also put a little more thought into the quick access icons which are easier to use.

Samsung Galaxy Tab

If I had any criticism really, it would be that removing my Google account settings from the device after I was finished with it was not very straightforward. In fact I had to do a complete factory reset of the device to do so, losing all the installed apps and configuration settings in the process. Now I know there are ways to speed us the recovery process here (AppBrain, for example) and that it’s probably not a very common thing to want to do with a portable device (certainly not with a mobile phone).

However, the increased screen size on this tab (and other pads) might tempt some small companies to buy a shared one for ad-hoc travelling employees to share, so perhaps it’s not that unreasonable after all.

In any case, it’s a really great device and did exactly what I needed it to on the day.

Google Street View launched in Ireland

Google have finally launched their Google Maps Street View service in Ireland. For those of you unfamiliar with this, it is the ability to zoom/pan down to ground level on a Google Map. I have used it once or twice but only really for US-based cities. However, it’s a wholly different (and addictive) experience using it to look at my own town, county and country.

The only down-side is that the simply isn’t obvious enough how to jump from a map view to the street view. To do this, you need to navigate to your location on the map view and then click and drag the small, yellow person icon (located above the zoom controls to the left of the map area) to the location on the map that you want to view the street view of.

Enjoy!

Realtime Aircraft Traffic from RadarVirtuel

A work colleagues sent me a link to Radar Virtuel recently and I was fascinated by the very existence of a website that shows flights in the air in real time. Each aeroplane symbol in the frame below is a real flight in the air, right now. Clicking on it allows you to see where it came from, where it is going and which airline it is.

You might need to dismiss the help overlay (blue X button in top right corner) to see the map more clearly. The grey overlay (circa 16 April 2010) shows the Volcanic Ash from the volcano in Iceland, and as was mentioned today, it is so rare to see the entire northern section of England and all of Ireland completely barren of any flights.

The site is more impressive during the day when there are more flights in the air.