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ICT Team Away Day – April 2009

April 22, 2009

Today has been a very busy day!  An early start saw me pulling together a variety of thoughts and pieces of information in preparation for the Higher Education Academy’s ICT team away day.  This was the first away day the team had ever had and there was certainly some apprehension as to how the day would pan out.

The aims of the day were two-fold.  In the first part the team was to engage in some tea building and learning activity based around supporting team planning exercises.  The second part was to put this into practice by planning out some upcoming work.

The day began with a nine thirty start at the Pavilion Hotel located in Fulford not far from the Academy’s York office where the ICT team are based.  The first task of the day as ever were some introductions and this was the first opportunity for the team to meet the consultants from Synergi who were to facilitate the day – Umran Amin and Ammaran Razaq.

After the introductions and a discussion around what people’s expectations for the day were out of the way the team got down to the business of getting to grips with a methodology developed by the prestigious Edward de Bono – The Six Thinking Hats.

This methodology categorises six different styles of thinking and provides a framework for sequentially applying the styles in a flexible way to allow people to pull towards a common goal in a common way that shifts and changes through the process to ensure an outcome is arrived at by the group.

For anyone who hasn’t come across the methodology, the hats are coloured and correspond to the following thinking styles:

  • Blue Hat – Management and process control.
  • White Hat – Data and facts focussed.
  • Green Hat – Creativity.
  • Red Hat – Instinct and gut feeling.
  • Yellow Hat – Positive aspects and benefits.
  • Black Hat – Potential pitfalls and negative aspects.
Six Hats

Six Thinking Hats of Edward de Bono

With an overview of the methodology the team set to using this to plan a significant piece of maintenance work. During May the team will be undertaking a piece of work over several days that will see a full reorganisation of the Academy York office’s server racks and the addressing of a number of bottle necks and issues that the team have identified.

The applicati0n of the methodology first looked at how the work could be structured and from this each area was picked up in turn and explored using the same methodology to flesh out the plans.  The day rounded off at a little after five with a large amount of planning agreed and specified.

Hopefully the effort put into the day will reap the reward in the successful development and implementation of the final plan and we’ll be able to use the methodology for future team planning sessions.

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Death of the iPod?

April 17, 2009

A little while ago I received a request for the installtion of Spotify on a work computer. I’d not heard of it at this point so I did some research and discovered that it was a piece of software that linked you to a massive library of music on the Internet. After a bit of discussion in trying to ascertain what the business case was for installing this to a work computer it faded away.

With greater news in the media recently I decided that I’d give it a go myself and see what all the fuss was about. A free version is available that allows you to listen to any track in the library, and you just get a few adverts every now and then – though a regular payment can eliminate these for uninterrupted listening. The application itself is very simple and is suspsciously similar to iTunes in styling which I guess makes it more familiar to a lot of people.

The quality of the audio was quite reasonable on my computer and in all for a free system it really does seem too good to be true. So is this the beginning of the end for the iPod and the death of the personal storage based media player?

Many journalists seem to think so but I would suggest that it is not.

I don’t think it will be long before the centralised storage access will become more available. The connectivity of devices such as the iPod touch (Wifi) and the iPhone (3G) mean that always on connectivity will allow access to these sorts of systems. This will be another leap forward in personal mobility of media, but there are a number of points that I believe will continue to see personal storage in effect (though probably combined with an online central storage option).

Power

The power requirements for streaming audio to your pocket device is such that battery technology will still have a long way to go. Imagine trying to get several hours play out of an iPod shuffle that is connecting to 3G. How efficient is that battery going to be?

Signal

It is realtively difficult to maintain signal quality in small devices with internal aerials and whilst it is obviously more commonplace these days with mobile phones to have internal aerials than it was say four or five years ago what is the transmission quality actually like? how often have you had a signal that wasn’t quite clear enough? That’s just on audio too which has been around for quite some time. Imagine the difference in data streaming. I assume some sort of buffering will be employed to resolve this, but if it isn’t buffering an entire track you may find that it just pauses at times detroying the listener’s experience.

Taking this further what happens in areas of no signal such as if you’re out hiking or possibly even on a plane or passing through a long tunnel on a train? A total lack of signal availability would effectively destroy your chance of listening to anything.

Range

The range of available tracks is growing all of the time. One of the first things I did when I tried Spotify was to try and find some tracks that I really liked to see if it had them listed. I would say that it managed to list about 50% of them … I didn’t count the karaoke only versions or covers recorded by another artist. Whilst I admit that this is going to grow extensively with a greater take up of such a service I do think that there’s always going to be something that isn’t available on it that I will want and in all likelihood will be likely to have or be able to get hold of in another format.

Podcasts

I actually rarely listen to music on my iPod unless I’m in the car. I more regularly listen to the radio (through an add-on to my iPod… I miss the inbuilt one on my old iRiver) or podcasts. It is not uncommon for me to re-listen to old podcasts (particularly technology related ones like Gartner and ones by the BBC). Some podcasts are always available for download, but others are subject to licensing restrictions which means that they are available for a limited period of time (e.g. BBC). Being able to store these allows me to listen to them in the way that I want.

So whilst I’m sure I could create a system that would allow me to securely stream media from a personal store (on-line or from my home) across the Internet I think that the limitations on power and connectivity will ensure that on device storage will continue to exist. I do think however that we will see more connected devices that allow access to on-line services like Spotify.

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Sharing Ideas and Good ICT

April 5, 2009

A few weeks ago I gave a presentation I’d been trying to put together for the best part of six months and this evening I’ve sent it on to the users who attended and who were unable to attend but showed an interest.  I realised at this point I hadn’t actually blogged about it so I thought I might put together a little post about it.

The aim was simply to share some ideas and some bits of ICT that could help people do their jobs quicker/better/cheaper/economically/more easily.  Many of these were based upon queries from users and solutions  found or in some cases pre-emptively finding options for issues that have yet to be raised.

A note was put into the staff briefing and some posters put up around the office to try and get people along to the presentation.  The attendance was surprisingly low and it’s unfortunate in terms of what people missed out on but I thought I’d highlight the areas that were discussed and some high level points on what was demonstrated and discussed.

The presentation was split into four main sections – software, hardware, web sites and engaging with the ICT team.

Software

  • Skype
  • Working with PDFs
    • Microsoft Office plug ins
    • PDF printers
    • PDF Bulder Toolkit
    • Drawloop.com
  • Public Folders in Outlook

Hardware

  • Photocopiers
    • Printing
    • Scanning
    • Secure printing & scanning
  • Data Capture
    • Dictaphones
    • Digital cameras
    • DigiMemo
    • MIMIO
  • Communication
    • Teleconferencing units
    • Audio/telephony cabling

Web Sites

Engaging with ICT

  • Service Desk
    • Queries
    • Training
  • Invitation
    • Project meetings
    • Team meetings
  • Communications
    • Presentations
    • Briefings
    • Mailings
    • Bulletins
    • Newsletters

I don’t plan on publishing the presentation widely as much of it is only directly relevant to Academy ICT users in the way it is presented, but the outline above gives an indication of the content and areas in which the user community is developing.

Hopefully some imminent developments might help create a greater sharing of such ideas and information within a community and build a better culture of knowledge sharing and management.

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Processing a Folder of Files

March 29, 2009

A few days ago I was speaking to one of my users about creating some PDF files from Microsoft Word and securing them so that they can’t be copied or printed.  Rather than using expensive software from Adobe or a generic creator like CutePDF I recommended using the add-in for Word 2007 that Microsoft provide as it provides some useful accessibility options (thanks to JISC TechDis for highlighting that one to me).

Unfortunately the add-in doesn’t have an option to secure a PDF so that’s where using a tool like PDFTK can help.  Being a command line tool though and the user having to produce more than 100 PDFs meant that a little help could come in handy.   Making use of the select folder VBScript I refined a little while ago, I created a generic VBScript to take a folder selection from a user and a command line operation via a simply single line input box to then process every file in the folder using the command line.

A percentage symbol is used as a place holder for the file path to be substituted into and any file paths for the command line (with the exception of the substitution – %) should include double quotes where there are spaces in the path.

Option Explicit

Dim strFolder, strRootFolder, strBaseCommand

'Get the information and process it
strRootFolder = SelectFolder("Select folder containing files to be processed:")
strBaseCommand = InputBox("Enter the command line to run against all files." & vbCrLf & "Place a percentage symbol (%) where the filename will be substituted")
ProcessFolder strRootFolder

'------------
'SUB ROUTINES
'------------

'Identify each file in a folder and run the specified command against it.
Sub ProcessFolder(pstrFolder)
	Dim objCurrentFolder, objFile
	Dim colFilesInFolder
	Dim strCommand
	Dim objWSHShell, objFSO

	'Initialise
	Set objWshShell = Wscript.CreateObject("Wscript.Shell")
	Set objFSO = Wscript.CreateObject("Scripting.FileSystemObject")
	Set objCurrentFolder = objFSO.GetFolder(pstrFolder)
	Set colFilesInFolder = objCurrentFolder.Files

	For Each objFile in colFilesInFolder
		strCommand = Replace(strBaseCommand,"%","""" & objFile.Path & """")
		objWSHShell.Run strCommand
	Next
End Sub

'---------
'FUNCTIONS
'---------

Function SelectFolder(pstrDialogLabel)
	'Select a folder
	Const BIF_returnonlyfsdirs   = &H0001
	Const BIF_editbox            = &H0010

	Dim objBrowseFolderDialog, objFolder, objFSO, objSelection
	Dim bBrowseForFolder

	Set objBrowseFolderDialog = WScript.CreateObject("Shell.Application")

	bBrowseForFolder = true

	While bBrowseForFolder
		Set objFolder = objBrowseFolderDialog.BrowseForFolder (&H0, pstrDialogLabel, BIF_editbox + BIF_returnonlyfsdirs)

		'Check that something has been returned
		If IsValidFolder(objFolder) Then
			Set objFSO = CreateObject("Scripting.FileSystemObject")

			Set objSelection = objFolder.Self
			If objFSO.FolderExists(objSelection.Path) Then
				'A valid folder has been selected
				SelectFolder = objSelection.Path
				bBrowseForFolder = false
			Else
				'The selection is not a valid folder, try again...
				MsgBox objFolder.Title & " is not a valid folder, please select another folder" _
					, vbOKOnly & vbExclamation, "Invalid Selection"
			End If
		Else
			'Nothing was selected, so return a null string
			SelectFolder = ""
			bBrowseForFolder = false
		End If
	Wend
End Function

Function IsValidFolder(pobjFolder)
	'Check that we have a valid value
	'i.e. you can concatenate it to a string
	Dim strTest

	On Error Resume Next

	strTest = " " & pobjFolder

	If Err <> 0 Then
		IsValidFolder = false
	Else
		IsValidFolder = true
	End If

	On Error GoTo 0
End Function

As it stands the folder just processes a single folder for all files (which was what I wanted), but simple amendments could allow this script to cater for specific file types (or patterns) and sub folders (a recursive call in the ProcessFolder() routine would allow this).

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Dim Dim D’oh

March 26, 2009

I’ve been looking at a number of broadcast technologies recently like Adobe Connect and Instant Presenter.  Several months ago I came across Dim Dim and in essence I have been fond of this Open Source option as it offers free meetings for up to 20 users and it is constantly being developed.

Tomorrow I’m going to be demonstrating Dim Dim and Vyew to one of the Academy users as options for a meeting next week.  Not a strategic decision or anything just fulfilling a practical need.  The idea is the user will have both demonstrated and they can choose which one they will find easier.  Now my preference is for Dim Dim over Vyew for this as Vyew is more about collaboration for me whereas Dim Dim is more about presentation.

The user is going to be using our in place video conferencing equipment but someone at our end will be giving a PowerPoint presentation and someone at the other end will also be giving one.  Both systems allow PowerPoint slides to be uploaded and allow the control of the screen to be passed to different users.  If necessary both systems also have screen sharing should all the bells and whistles be in a PowerPoint presentation be necessary to view … but I will be warning of lag in viewing at the other end (there’s bound to be some latency).

I decided that I’d have a quick practice this evening to ensure that everything was up to the job and it is except I’ve discovered a bit of a glaring omission in Dim Dim.  In the current version you can pre-schedule a meeting and set everything up ahead of time … with the exception of being able to upload any documents (i.e. presentations) ahead of time.

I did a quick test by starting the meeting, uploading a  file, ending the meeting, and then starting the meeting again.  The uploaded presentation had been lost.  A quick search on the Dim Dim issue log yielded an unfortunate entry:

Log Entry EN-214

how can I load a PPT presentation prior to the start of the meeting? If I try to do this now for a 3:30 meeting, the participants receive an e-mail that the meeting has started.

Not only can you not preload presentations but when you first go into the meeting it e-mails attendees that it has started.  I guess that’s where the lobby feature comes in, but I can’t believe that such a generally progressive system missed this (basic?) feature – a bit of a Dim Dim D’oh!

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Exchange Mailbox Limits Update Lag

March 19, 2009

Microsoft Exchange is a fairly ubiquitous system for handling e-mails and I made a surprising discovery today whilst amending a user’s mailbox storage limits … they don’t get updated straight away.

So lets take a little step back and look at storage limits.  First of all Exchange allows three size limits (in KB not number of mails) to be placed on user mailboxes. The first level triggers a warning to the user that they are approaching a limit … ironically the warning is an e-mail but it is a small one so this can be forgiven.  The second restricts the user’s permission to send mail (but they can still receive it).  The third limit actually stops any mail entering the inbox, but the mail server will keep mails queued up for a little while to give the user chance to make some space so all is not immediately lost if the user reaches this third and final limit – which can happen if someone bombards you with lots of e-mails with large attachments.

We impose limits on mailboxes for a number of reasons.  Ones that immediately come to mind for example are (in no particular order):

  1. It ensures that we have enough storage capacity on the mail server to handle all of the mailboxes.
  2. It ensures that users can’t monopolise the available storage space.
  3. It ensures that a user’s mail software remains responsive (though PST files can *really* trash this performance I also noted today).
  4. It ensures that mailboxes can be backed up and restored efficiently.

Occasionally however people have a need to have an increased mailbox size to get them through a busy period where they may be out of the office and unable to spend time housekeeping or if they are receiving a number of large attachments (e.g. during a funding bidding process or event registration).  On these occasions a temporary increase in mailbox size is authorised for an agreed period.

This isn’t a common occurrence and I’ve probably only amended mail storage limits some half a dozen times or so.  This change has always been picked up within a few minutes and until today I hadn’t realised how ‘lucky’ I’d been.

Today I discovered that Exchange actually works from a cached set of mailbox limits and that the default turn around time on this is up to a whopping two hours.  So this is something we’ll need to keep in mind in future though it may be that we might consider applying a registry change at some point to remedy this (though I think this is one to test on our development environment before making the change to the live system) or at least identify roughly at what time the cache refresh runs so that we can give our users a better idea of when the limits will take effect.

Whilst the #326252 Microsoft Knowledge Base article applies to Exchange 2000, some background reading suggests that this is applicable to later versions of Exchange too.

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Windows Mobile Keyboard

March 8, 2009

A little while ago I spent some time outside of work struggling with a particular application on my Samsung Omnia i900 mobile phone.  It seemed like it just didn’t work properly and I almost reported it to the developers as a bug.  Just before I did I came across another piece of mobile software and noted a very similar problem and this time something clicked and I realised what the issue really was.

The problem I was experiencing was that I could navigate within the applications using my physical pointer on the touch screen of the phone, but within some parts of the application there was just no response when tapping (or double tapping).  Using the inbuilt optical mouse button had an identical non-response.  Eventually I realised that the software had been written for Windows mobile devices that had a physical D-pad.

A D-pad (or directional pad) is typically found below the screen on a Windows mobile device and has five physical buttons.  One for return (usually in the centre) and four directional buttons (up, down, left and right).  Since the Omnia has no D-pad my next thought was to have a look through the inbuilt keyboard options for an on screen keyboard with directional buttons.

By default I use the “Samsung Keyboard” which does not have any directional buttons.  A quick search through the options showed that the “MS Keyboard” was the only one to have arrow keys.  I tried using this keyboard and it did indeed resolve the navigation issue in the applications.  the only problem is that whilst I could navigate using the physical pointer and the optical mouse with this keyboard it is slow and fiddly as the keys are simply so small.  I use my fingers to do most of my interaction with my phone so I decided to continue looking for another finger friendly solution.

My first investigation was in trying to find a “virtual” or “on screen” D-pad.  Unfortunately everyone’s favourite font of all knowledge (Google) didn’t yield any usable results and so I took a step back to see if there were any keyboards for Windows mobile that could be configured to have large directional keys.

This time my search was a little more fruitful.  PCM Keyboard is an incredibly flexible keyboard for Windows Mobile devices.  Using the Microsoft emulator for WM6, a base theme package for PCM Keyboard called “dream2“, some rough documentation and several hours of confusion and frustration later and I have managed to configure more than just a simple on screen D-pad.

My solution is “DPress” a theme for PCM Keyboard.  Copy the DPress.zip file to your Windows mobile device and place it into the same directory as your PCM Keyboard installation (check under Program Files on whichever storage area you installed PCM Keyboard to).  Select the options for installed keyboards and the options for the PCM Keyboard.  Select DPress and ensure that you select a keyboard type (qwerty and azerty are included).  Save the changes and then the likelihood is you’ll need to restart your device and reselect the PCM Keyboard as the input option to get the DPress keyboard.

Below are some screen shots on how to access the different displays of the keyboard.  Click on the thumbnail images for larger views.

The Default - lowercaseuppercaselower case keyboard left is the default keyboard view as one might expect. From here the keyboard layout can be changed through a number of key presses. The most obvious one is pressing the shift key. This will change the layout to upper case(shown on the right). Pressing and holding the shift button will enable what is in effect caps lock and the upper case layout will remain until the layout is again changed – e.g. by pressing shift once more.

A number of keys provide quick access to in-situ additional keys.  Pressing and holding vowel keys will give access to extended character sets, similarly pressing and holding space will give access to numbers, the comma button will allow access to emoticons and the return button will give access to some function buttons (options, cut, copy, paste).  Some of these are illustrated in the following screen shots.

quick-numbers quick-extended-characters quick-emoticons

Clicking the “.,123” button swaps to a numeric keypad (left image below).  Clicking and holding the period (“.”) button swaps to a symbolic keypad (middle image below).  Finally (and the one you’ve probably been waiting for) by clicking and holding the “.,123” button a D-pad is displayed (right image below).

numeric-keypad symbolic-keypad d-pad

Quite versatile for one keyboard theme on a mobile device? I think so.

I’ll be blogging about the pieces of software I had the issues with in the not too distant future, but in the meantime enjoy the DPress keyboard. It is provided as is with no guarantees and I’m sure it probably won’t display well on every Windows Mobile device, but if it doesn’t work why not modify it yourself and modify it to suit your purposes. That’s exactly what I did with the “Dream2” theme so ultimately my thanks go to the author of that theme and PCM Keyboard.