Changing my primary mobile device to an iPad.

It’s a new decade and it seems that I’m marking it with a really new way of working. I decided back in December that I was going to trade in my trusty Surface book 2 and go for something more portable. I love that device. It’s powerful, the keyboard is particularly comfortable and the battery life is exceptional. I have happily left home and attended a full conference without even considering the need to bring a plug. With standard note taking, checking Email and talking with the office over IM, the laptop seems to be happy to work well over ten hours without a charge.

But it was too big. And let’s face it, too powerful for my day to day needs. I ocasionally jump into some serious development in Visual studio but that’s the exception, not the norm. I certainly go in and out of remote desktops a lot and I use a lot of administrative tools but overall, I used the Surfacebook for writing. Be it in Microsoft word, Emails, instant messaging, blog posts, technical documentation etc, it was primarily a device that I used for some kind of day to day stand by machine. The main worker at home is my destop which is a beast of a machine. In work, I have a reasonably powerful laptop and desktop so really, the Surface Book 2 just wasn’t getting to stretch it’s legs often enough.

So I’ve decided without much deep consideration to give the iPad pro a shot. My priorities this year have changed a little compared to last year. I intend to create more video and audio content and I don’t want to be teathered to my desk so this little device is kind of perfect, I think, for what I’m going to attempt.

Of course, I need something to write on regularly so a device with a keyboard is vital but fortunately, the iPad pro comes with a really nifty little keyboard and the typing experience, although not as nice as on the Surface book 2, is certainly passable. However, let me confirm that in a week or two when I’ve spent a few dozen hours typing things out.

One thing that concerns me is the lack of great spell checking facilities. My spelling is absolutely terrible. I’m not sure how I’m going to cope without that. For example, I deliberately misspelled the word cope there and tried to figure out if it was incorrect. The only way I could figure it out was to read word by word. There is a popup that may be displayed given a certain situation however I haven’t been able to trigger that reliably yet. I should probably read a manual. I’m learning the more complicated commands by trial and error at the moment.

This is just a short blog post to get started with authoring on the iPad. Let’s see how it goes.

So far, reading the content back on the iPad has certainly been accessible. That’s really nice as a year or two ago, the WordPress app wasn’t very accessible when trying to read text in edit areas.

HGV convoy. In aid of Fionn’s parade of lights.

Last time I publish a post I explained how I was getting into videography. Here’s the first attemp in a while. Although, most of the videoing credit must go to my wife.

We were in a trucking convoy earlier. In was in aid of a charity initiative called Fionn’s parade of lights. here’s the video.

The night before Christmas – 2019

You might wonder.  Why, on one of the busyist night sof the year would you record such a complicated podcast and edit it before Christmas day even starts.  well the reason is quite simple.  I can’t look back on pictures.  These podcasts serve as my memories and as a way of tracking how my children have interacted with Christmas over the years.  It’s amazingly good fun to listen back over these together.

There are family members abroad as well who I think will get some enjoyment out of these recordings.

To everyone who continues to visit this website, please let me wish you a very happy Christmas and a sucessful and rewarding new year.

Videoing techniques

Since the last blog regarding video blogging or vlogging, I’ve invested in more equipment and I’ve researched a lot of techniques as well. Here are a few videos that I started off with.

Useful learning resources

  • Movements for cinematic shots using a gimbal.
  • Tips for shooting video with a phone. This also gave a basic introduction to B roll.
  •  How to plan and record B Roll. This person has some fantastic tutorials. I’ve learned a lot from him but I haven’t figured out how to implement it yet in my situation.

The problem is now that I have a beginners understanding of how to frame shots and what kind of angles, transitions and lenses are best in some situations however, I still have the problem of actually knowing if the shot I have taken is good or not.  I’ve resorted to using Aira to help me frame a shot.  I may then even call up again to ask them to take a look at the footage.  But I admit, that’s not a great use of my Aira minutes and also the Aira agents try to be very posative but I need less posativity and more honest opinions to figure out if what I have done is any decent or not.

The Kit

Aside from learning, I’ve also invested in some new kit.  Christmas was good to me as well.  My wife bought me a very nice Shure MV88+ microphone.  This tiny little microphone sounds great and comes with great clips for the phone and the gimbal.

Onto the Gimbal.  I have had a cheap gimbal for about a year now but I’ve recently upgraded to the Freefly Movi Cinema robot.  This provides way more success when shooting stable videos and the feature set is much more professional than that of the previous gimbal.  It’s pricy though even on it’s own but when combined with everything else that’s needed to make this work effectively, it’s eye wateringly and stupidly expensive.

The last bit of kit I invested in recently was a 18mm lens from a company called Moment.  This lense attaches to a case for the iPhone to nearly double the depth of view on the phone.  It’s a really powerful addition and from what I’ve been told by people who have commented on videos that I’ve posted, this really helps make video shot on the phone look much more professional.

Here’s how it all looks when it’s together:

Picture of the iPhone attached to a gimbal with a camera on the top. It looks very professional

But nothing is ever simple. Take a look at the list below to see how many extra parts were needed just to make all this fit together.

I am not receiving anything for mentioning any of these products. Because if I was, I would point out that the fact that Freefly and Moment have products that work so well together and have in fact careful attention has been given so that their designs complement each other but yet, when adding a moment lens, there are two other rather pricey components that need to be added.  The lens on it’ sown is pricey enough.  Adding the counterweights and the case just makes me feel cheated.

This post is long enough. I’ll explain more about how I’m using all of this in a future post. For now though, take a look at a video that was captured using all of this.

Blind videographer

I’m really trying to complicate life for myself these days. But the art of videography really interests me.  In this post I’m going to tell you how I have recorded video and how I intend to do it again in a better way in the near future. But first, here are a few reasons why this has captured my attention.  It’s important you know why I’m doing this, so you understand the motivation behind some of the choices.

  • I’m fascinated by the attention span and the combination of science and art that can either retain that attention span or completely lose it. Social media is rotting our attention span. It’s written about in many places but here’s one article on the topic. I got into this more in the past few years because when a video is posted to Facebook, a viewer only needs to watch the video for about 15 seconds before it’ counted towards the number of views that the video has had.  But people who watch the video for longer are more likely to engage with it.  That could be difference between a sale or a passed opportunity. Videos can’t just be interesting or informative, they need to have dynamic visual and audible content that engages the viewer.
  • All of this visual curiosity goes back to the very first books I read on website design twenty years ago. I learned back then about contrast, why you shouldn’t put large moving images on a site, why scroll bars on the home page are a bad idea, why pages behind lots of layers of links aren’t very popular and more.  It because obvious that to make a good website, the visual interaction was way more important than the content during those first few seconds that a visitor landed on the site.  That initial first reaction is now way more important. Every 10 seconds or so, you need to make a brand-new impact to keep a person’s attention because there’s so much content out there, if your video isn’t appealing, there’s another twenty funny cat videos for them to look at.
  • Video is incredibly creative. I really enjoy reading about camera placement. Of course, it’s very easy to get bogged down in the technical side of this but people are all about the angles. And the angles should change regularly to keep the eyes interested and the attention on the topic.  Some movement is also good.  So, it’s kind of the reverse of what applies to website design.  People try to get really creative with angles.  For example, one person whose material I enjoy reading explained in great detail a segment where he was poring water into a glass.  First, he put the camera into the fridge so that when he opened the door, the camera was looking out at him.  Then he put the camera facing down when he put the bottle onto the counter.  So that the video was now taken from the top.  Then he held the camera so that it looked like the video angle was from the perspective of his hand reaching for a glass.  His last segment was then poring the liquid into the glass.  He put the glass on top of the camera and videoed the liquid entering the glass from the perspective of looking up from the bottom.  This very simple activity of taking a bottle out of the fridge, putting it on the counter, getting the glass then filling the glass with the liquid in the bottle was done in four segments.  This made it very dynamic and interesting for someone watching what would otherwise be a very boring task.  This is just an example, but it highlights the freedom and potential for creativity when shooting a video.  The really interesting and fun thing for me is trying to think of ways that might be interesting to capture these different angles.  I haven’t practised this much. And at the moment my ideas are very basic. But with some help, I intend to get a little more complicated.
  • Of course, the technical side of thing interests me. Video was such an unattainable medium to create up to a few years ago. But the technology has become so much more usable and accessible that it’s now within our grasp.

So, how am I going to become in any way proficient in creating something in a medium that is inherently visual? I’m not sure. But What I can say is here’s how I’ve managed to get results so far.

  • Use the iPhone. Voiceover makes the camera interface completely accessible.
  • On the iPhone, take a picture if you aren’t sure that the people you want are in the shot and to make sure there’s enough light. Voiceover should tell you how many faces it sees and if the picture you take is blurry.
  • Take in landscape. E. with the phone on its side. Make sure Voiceover tells you that you are in landscape before you hit the button.
  • Use the volume up or volume down button to start and stop the video recording. It is easier when holding it straight to use these buttons as you aren’t tempted to tilt the screen.
  • Get help learning how the phone feels in your grip when it is straight. In later versions of IOS 13, Voiceover will tell you if you need to tilt left or right.  It then makes a sound when you are straight. But you want to make sure the camera isn’t facing too far up or too far down.
  • If in doubt, ask someone to take the video for you. I’ve rarely been told no when I ask someone to take over. In fact, people are always curious as to how I was going to do it in the first place. If they tell me they aren’t good with cameras, I joke that they there’s no doubt they will be better at it than me.
  • Feel free to record a really quick note at the beginning of your video to say what you are trying to capture along with when and where you are recording. You can easily edit this out later in iMovie.  But leave yourself some time.  Moving along the timeline in iMovie with voiceover on both the Mac and the iPhone is not as exact as it is for someone who can see as the increments are specific with Voiceover.
  • Use a Gimbal. I bought a cheap one a year ago and I’ve never looked back. Really bad pun.  But seriously. The gimbal makes things so much easier.  Just put the phone into the bracket, turn on the gimbal and let it do the rest.  It will keep it straight and facing forward. Depending on the gimbal, you can even use special apps to help you focus on people so that when they move, the gimbal moves along with them.

iMovie is accessible but be prepared for the following work around on the iPhone.  To enable the controls at the bottom of the screen, find the timeline with your finger.  Now with your other hand, turn off voice over.  Do not move your finger.  When voiceover is turned off, tap once.  Now turn Voiceover back on. The controls are now exposed on the bottom.  I do this about 200 times when editing video so it’s a very quick process. But triple tapping and holding doesn’t always work. But this does.  Also, if you have problems setting the play head to a specific location, just listen to the video to the point that you want to cut from then hit pause.  You can then work from that point.

There are a few ways that I aim to improve my set up and my video recording results.

  • I’ve invested in an 18ml lens for the iPhone. Nothing will ever beat the video captured on a professional video camera or even a DSLR, but these methods aren’t accessible. So, a separate lens will do the job nicely. One of the main reasons I wanted a wide-angle lens is because by making the field of view larger, I know that no matter what way I point the camera in, I’m much more likely to get something in the shot.  I’m hoping, and so far this has been accurate enough that even if I don’t get the people centred, that mishap will firstly be forgiven by my audience or looking at this more positively, potentially the off centre shot will help feed that dynamic angle objective that I was talking about earlier.
  • Better gimbal. The gimbal that I’ve been using is basically a very complicated version of a selfy stick. However, this makes retaining certainty in relation to the exact direction the phone is facing in a little difficult at times when it’s busy.  So, the gimbal I have gone with now has the mount on the side and allows for two handed operation for much better awareness of the direction I’m trying to record in.

I’ve spent months now talking with people in person and online about video angles, equipment, lighting and technologies.   I have learned a lot but I’m only scratching the surface.  Some people have been really interested in what I’m trying to achieve so have actively tried to find ways of helping me with methods of ensuring that everyone is in frame.  With all of my shots taken in a wide angle and zoomed perspective in land scape, I’m always going to be the most basic of videographers but that’s fine. I’m really okay with that.  I still think I can have some fun with learning about angles and movement and although my videos won’t be spectacular, I’m going to have some fun learning what does and doesn’t work.

Blind live sound engineering.

I was the provider of equipment and sound engineering services to the Drogheda Christmas Festival from the 6th to the 8th of December this year. It was an absolutely crazy weekend for many reasons, but I want to focus on the sound engineering parts mainly.   I’ll work from the beginning to the end with a few conclusions to finish up.   What I want to describe to you is the potential hurdles of sound engineering when you can’t see. Can you take this up as an occupation? You can make your mind up at the end.

First, let’s go over some of the equipment that I used during the weekend:

  • 2 15.5-inch RCF tops
    I love these speakers. I have had them for about 6 years now. Other speakers have come and gone but these are powerful, the sound is really clean, and they are built like tanks.
  • 2 18-inch bass bins with RCF drivers
    The shell of these bass bins are generic but I’ve recently had the drivers replaced. They now sound great. But plastic bins would save me some headaches as the wooden shells have more throwback.
  • A 14-inch stage monitor. Again, RCF. I sometimes also used a Bose S1 up beside the keyboard player
    I love the Bose S1.  It is an incredibly versatile speaker.
  • A 22 channel Allen & Heath analogue mixing desk
    This desk is great for big gigs. It has so many great options and fantastic versatility, but it can be a little complicated.
  • 2 two channel compressor units
    I wouldn’t be without these for large gigs. Great for drum kits and for evening out main / solo vocalists.
  • One graphic equalizer
    I never get enough use out of this. I have an idea to balance out the bass bins and the tops someday, but I need some time to properly figure out the controls so that I can use them in a hurry.
  • An effects unit
  • Thomann wireless microphones. 4 handheld and 8 headsets
    Perfect to throw around the stage.  I don’t know why but these things hardly ever give out feedback.
  • 4 Audex Condenser microphones
    Feedback central but they are great for amplifying the uilleann pipes. I used them this weekend for choirs.
  • 12 Dynamic microphones. Mostly OM2 and OM3
    I never needed all 12 at the same time but it was handy to never need to look for a microphone when I needed one in a hurry.
  • 2 passive DI boxes
    Necessary for the keyboard and guitars.
  • A keyboard
    Rented from the Sound shop in Drogheda for this weekend.
  • A 30-metre stage box / snake. This has 32 cores
    I wouldn’t be without the stage box. Especially when amplifying a choir.  IT’s really important to be able to stand back from the stage and blend the sound properly for the front speakers.
  • A rack on wheels
    Wheels are the single most important thing. Make sure that if something is heavy that it can be moved by wheels.  I know far too many sound engineers with bad backs.  Also, racks of equipment are easier to set up and use.  I just plug my rack in, and everything is powered from one plug board.
  • Sure wireless in ear monitors
    Not needed this time but they are in the rack permanently so that if a singer needs them, they are there.

Accessibility

Now: a few accessibility related considerations.

  • Know your stage box. Understand / learn exactly what each port is for and know the sequence of the channel numbers.
  • Know your mixer. Know what every button and nob does. Make sure you are really gentle. Use your fingertips and try to keep one finger on the board at all times for orientation.  You can not ever tip off a fader or mistakenly turn the gain.  That would be rather unfortunate.
  • Don’t let people move things or do anything without fully describing it to you first. Your equipment is your responsibility.  The sound of the group on stage is also your responsibility.  They have practised and prepared for a long time before getting up there, so you need to do your very best.  You can’t afford to led feedback destroy their performance.  But accept that some feedback at the start is inevitable.
  • Accept that you will need someone with you that can see. But sound engineers who are managing the stage from a mixer at the front will generally need a stagehand so it’s not like you need additional people compared to anyone else. Make sure your stagehand communicates clearly, promptly and efficiently when something changes on stage. I can’t say this enough. You need to know when people move, when microphones have been changed around or if someone looks like they are about to knock over a microphone stand.  Then your reactions on the desk need to be as fast as lightening to make sure your audience don’t hear loud pops or feedback.
  • Have an effective and clearly heard communication system. I used cheap two-way radios for this.  Your stagehand should be aware that she / he needs to communicate with you using this method when on stage.
  • Set up a microphone so that you can talk to the stage through the monitor only. Performers regularly expect sound engineers to give them hand signals or eye contact when they need something. But you won’t be able to do that, so you need a way of getting their attention and effectively explaining what you need them to do.  For example, drummer, play your snare.  Guitar play for a moment.  Okay, main vocalist, let me hear you.  You also need to get a good monitor value so accept that the musicians on stage will communicate this to your stagehand and your stagehand needs to relay this to you.
  • Use your stage box / snake in combination with cable ramps as a guide between the stage and the mixer. Use cable ramps so that you’re not walking on the snake cable. Cable ramps are a perfect way of orientating yourself.   They will bring you in a straight line between the stage and where you have set up your mixer so you can really comfortably make your way to and from the stage when you need.  IF you can, use Harris fencing to make a path for yourself as you don’t’ want to need to barge through the crowd every time you need to get to the stage.  Please consider this to be my number one tip.

Choirs

During the weekend I amplified 8 choirs.  The smallest was 16 people and the largest was 70.  I also amplified quite a few soloists and smaller groups but by far, the choirs were the most difficult. Here’s why:

  • They kept moving the microphones
  • Some of the less experienced moved around the stage a lot
  • It was hard for me to know what soloist in the choir was at what microphone. I needed the stagehand to be really fast when telling me what microphone was active. This was necessary as in the case of the very large choirs, there were way too many microphones floating around. I had over 20 microphones connected.  Solo microphones were only live when necessary.  A sighted sound engineer would have been able to see when each soloist was stepping forward.  Fortunately, I have colour coded each wireless microphone, so my stagehand was able to very definitively tell me what mics to enable.

Spatial awareness

The setup is always time consuming but it’s important that you do this yourself.  You need to know where every extension cable is, where every socket is and where every component of sound equipment is sitting on stage so that you can clearly give instructions to your sound hand.  It is very likely you will have much more experience than your stagehand, so you need to be very clear when giving instructions.

Either be prepared for a few bruised shins or get some kind of protection for your knees and shins. That might sound strange but from personal experience of jumping on and off stage, sometimes you’re going to misjudge and your going to slam into the front of the stage.  Get used to it and just accept that it’s going to happen.  Leave yourself plenty of time for set up and pack down because while you have that time to yourself on stage, you are going to learn every inch of the layout.  You’re going to learn exactly where you can step down so that you line yourself up with the cable ramp and you are going to learn where you shouldn’t step down off the stage or you could step on a speaker stand or a bass bin.  Trust me, that can be rather uncomfortable.  By the time the gig starts, you should be jumping on and off that stage as if you lived there all your life.  Because you will have done it about 50 times in the past few hours.  Oh, one more thing.   Use something on the stage to indicate to you when the stage is about to abruptly end.  I prefer to put my cables to the front of the stage, and I use Velcro to gather them together.  That way, when I come to the cables, I know that I’m at the right spot.  Also, I tend to put a DI or another small box near where I’m going to get on and off so that I can verify really quickly with my foot that I’m in the right spot.  But of course, don’t walk around like a bull in a China shop.  You need to be careful that you don’t dislodge connections.

The challenges

Managing the sound for a group that you know well is easy.  You know that the guitar might be a bit tiny on the top end and might need a bit of extra low end.  You know that you will need to EQ the keyboard and you might give your vocalist some compression and some effects.  You know that the condenser microphones are a bit bright especially when used with the pipes, so you get a very clear expectation of what you need to modify.  But when you are amplifying groups that you don’t know; all of the unknowns make for a much more challenging job.  So, can you do this when you can’t see the group on stage? Here’s what I found.

  • So many sound engineers fly by numbers.  They know that they will take 3khz out for voice. They might take 4khz out for the keyboard and guitars or they might take a bit of high end out for the backing track. They watch the lights on the mixer to see if anything goes into the read before they even put it through the front of house speakers.  This lets them know if anything is giving too much signal and might over drive / cause feedback.   When you can’t see, you need to do all of this by listening.  You might not know that you’ve taken 3khz out, but you do know that you are happy with the sound.  For all you know, you might have taken 5khz out.  You also may get a little more feedback at the beginning while you find out what’s giving signal and what’s not. But this is manageable with experience.  You start with the main fader down about halfway and the gain down as low as it can go then you nudge everything up slowly. But it’s not as fast as when you can look at the lights on the desk. However, I typically found that my reactions when scanning for feedback were faster than someone who can see.  Because I always have one finger minimum on the desk, I always have a point of reference.  However, sometimes, it’s possible for the sighted engineer to see the channel that is giving trouble.  Not always but sometimes.
  • I mentioned earlier about people moving and equipment moving on stage. That’s a huge problem.  If someone moves a microphone and you’re not aware of it, it can put your entire mix out of balance. For example, on Saturday night, channel 2 wouldn’t give me any volume.  I just couldn’t get it to do anything without feeding back.  It was always giving me way too much low end.  I asked the stagehand and I was told that the mic was facing the right way.  But after the gig, I had found that someone put a really large case over the bottom of the bass bin.  When I got closer to the stage and everyone had gone, I realized that that case was causing the bass bin to practically rattle.  The change was subtle but because of the position of the microphone on channel 2, it was picking up that extra low end.  Because I had configured sound prior to that choir and prior to this case being left on the bass bin, I had given that microphone a really nice mix so that it was balanced with everything else.  This unknown element on stage and the fact that the stagehand didn’t realize it was very important put me at a disadvantage.   I was able to supplement that mic by telling the stagehand to move other microphones around after the first song to capture that spot, but it bothered me that I had lost some volume.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I’m sorry to say that I won’t ever try this again for a very long time. Sound engineering for someone who can’t see just isn’t practical.  There are too many things happening on and off stage.  Trying to handle so much equipment while communicating with a stagehand and also dealing with people on stage who may or may not move things around is way too much stress and pressure in my opinion. Perhaps if you built up a really solid communication strategy with your stagehand you could make this work but that would be putting a massive amount of responsibility on your stagehand so I wouldn’t recommend it. But trying this out was a really interesting experience and when the weekend was over, I felt a great sense of achievement at having done it.  But as they say, I’ve been there, done that and bought the t-shirt.  I have no great desire to do it again.

Pictures

Password expiration is dead! So says Microsoft in Windows 10 1903.

I’m quite happy about this.  expiring passwords is quite frankly stupid.  All this promotes is simple, easy to crack or hard to remember passwords.

In Windows 10 1903, Microsoft got it right.  They said: look if you think this is improving security your mistaken.

Here’s the really well written article that they published about the change.

Now, it will take the industry, in particular auditors in the industry to catch onto this.  Nothing against auditors but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this continues coming up in audits for years to come.

Staying productive. How?

People often praise me for my seemingly unending motivation and energy. But often, I come back at night, spend time with the children, grab something to eat and by 8pm, I sit down at the computer and just think, god it would be so much easier to turn on Netflix or something and just sit and do absolutely nothing for a few hours.  I rarely give into this temptation though as there are so many things niggling at the back of my mind that I want to achieve or get experience in. Not because I’m massively motivated to be productive, but because I just really enjoy the result of working  on something and knowing at the end that I made it.  But at the beginning of a project or when something goes wrong it’s damn near impossible to get that motivation back.

There are two things that suck the motivation out of me. noise and sometimes just not knowing where to start. so, here are a few tips from a busy person.  These might work for you. They might not.  All I can say is they work for me.  Most times.  Some have been very recent changes. Some have been there for years.

Firstly, let me pass on something very profound that my mother said to me about five years ago.  It was one sunday evening while standing in her kitchen.  She was walking around putting things away when she came up with this and it gave me the start I needed.  She said that no major change happens over night. It happens in bits.  You decide what you want then you break that goal up into little parts. You take the pressure off yourself by not restricting yourself to unmanageable deadlines but you aim to change those parts of your life that you don’t like in little stages until one day, you wake up and you realize that it’s all done.  That day will come and for me it came much faster than I expected once I figured out where to start. I’m not saying I have everything right. I’m hardly that conceded. But I made the change that I needed to make at that time.

There was another piece of advice given to me by a friend of mine. Sean Conway. It was late on a saturday night and a few pints were probably had but the advice really rang home to me. It related to music but the same can be said for many other parts of life.  He said find out the absolute fastest you can go where you can fit all the technique you want in. Then ease off the throttle and go a little slower. You’ll be more comfortable, your technique will be even better because you’re not struggling and you will always have that bit more to push if you need to.

I’ll give you the last bit of wisdom that this time my father imparts quite regularly.  His commonly used quote is “You can’t put an old head on young shoulders.” I’m 37. So I have a few years of experience by now. But I don’t know everything. I’ve lived through some very weird situations and found my self in environments where even at the time I thought, “wow, I can’t believe it’s me here that needs to handle this”. But still, I’m by no means an expert on anything so this rambling meandering torrent of words should be considered within the bounds of my fathers quote.  You can’t put an old head on young shoulders.

So, how do I get and stay productive.

The honest answer.

  1.  I love recognition. Cat, a friend from years ago said in a comment on this blog when Darragh does something, he does it right. I don’t know if that’s absolutely right but I like to aspire to live up to that expectation. Again, let me draw from an experience with my father.  When I was 16 I worked in his factory. I couldn’t understand why we were sanding down the back of head boards.  Surely if we did along the top and a tiny bit of the back, no one would notice that the rest of the headboard wasn’t sanded as it would be up against a wall. Stephen, the person spraying at the time commented with admiration that Ken, my father had high standards. It was those high standards that the customer was buying. They could buy furniture in other places but Alpine did it right.  I like the idea of that recognition.  Being a person where the job would be done right.
  2. Typically I do things that I really enjoy. I’ve often said it.  I play music and I absolutely love being able to make people happy with a tune, or letting people reflect as well with another. It might sound really cheesy but it really is an honor to play music for people. I get as much enjoyment out of it as others do. Then, when I’m not playing music, I@m working.  I’m in an organization at the moment where I’m challenged every day by technical solutions to find but most importantly, I get to design and implement systems that make a difference.  It might just be securing user accounts or making it more efficient to deploy updates. But it also could be a new way for students to onboard for the first time or making it easier for students to print.  I’m not one for talking to people, I’m honestly more comfortable at a keyboard, but it gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning when I know that what I do makes things better for people. It’s an added plus that I often get to design how these systems work.  I’m a really creative person. I like that opportunity to let that side out. It’s not something that happens in technical roles very often.  So this is all a long winded way of saying, find something that you enjoy doing.  My father is coming across as a fountain of knowledge in this post but again, something he said to me when I was trying to decide what direction to take in life always stuck and it’s something I try to pass on when I can.   He said do something you love when you can. But do something that you can like to pay the bills.  That way you always have your first love to go back on.  I’m lucky. It turned out that I retained a great interest in both music and technology.  Many people after 15+ years working in technology for their 9 to 5 would get home and not touch a computer at night.  Which is absolutely fine.  But I think that when what you do to pay the bills is as important to you as your hobbies, motivation and sustained energy is easier to come by.
  3. Private office. Showing 3 computers on a very clean desk.My next suggestion is a new one. It’s find a space. In my opinion, open plan offices are the work of the devil and they should be swept away as one of the massively bad ideas of the 20th century.  I have recently moved into a private office and the sense of calm is so energizing that I’m finding myself less tired even at 9pm at night.  Noise! I said it earlier.  It’s one of my major obstructions to good productivity. In open plan offices, people are constantly talking and there’s always movement.  Just when you get into a flow and the right frame of mind to really get stuck into a difficult task that requires serious focus someone starts a conversation that you can hear and your mind wanders again. Or someone walks by you and tips off your desk or even worse, your chair.  It’s infuriating!  Now, this is because I’m not necessarily a people person. Don’t get me wrong please. It’s not that I dislike people.  That’s just not true at all. But I like getting things done and I like getting into a focused frame of mind where I can really get hold of what I’m working at and think hard about it.  Open plan offices get in the way of reaching that clarity. I have also designed a space at home that is really conducive to creativity and productivity. It’s really open, there’s space to pace around, I have a few different types of keyboards and I can move into different seating positions when I’m working on something for a very long time. I also have a great sound system and an equally good pair of headphones.  I listen to my computer speak through the headphones so I can always focus on that but then if I’m into something that is not too difficult but requires sustained focus, I turn up the music to an outrageous volume. I enjoy the boom of the sub so even when the computer is talking, I can get into the beat of what is playing.
  4. Have someone that you can rant to. All that person needs to do is show surprise, annoyance, a laugh or just empethize.  Because sometimes it’s just good to talk through something.  Especially if what your working on isn’t going quite to plan.  Often I finish at 12am at night and I go in to my wife and spout what must just sound like verbal diarrhea mixed with one of those technical bullshit generators that can be found online. But while spouting on about some weird thing that’s not working right today, sometimes the answer just comes to me.  More times than not the answer doesn’t come to me but it’s just good to get that frustration off my chest If I don’t talk it through and explain to myself more than anyone else why it’s not working, I’ll try to go to sleep but the problem will continue to eat at me and it will take what seems like an eon to finally find some sleep. But also sometimes, it’s important to note that my wife will hear me say something and pick up something else from a previous conversation and give me a nugget of that back that triggers a completely different line of thought. I’ve been known to have one of those rants, sleep for an hour, wake up with a new idea and go back to the office to write it down and even try it to see what would happen.
  5. don’t ever let someone put you down. I mean it. If you let someone put you down and I hear about it, I’m going to be really annoyed at you. If you know me, you’ll know that I’m a reasonably confident person. But for years one particular person put me down. To the extent I actually started believing him.  I was on the bus this morning and reflecting that around this time quite some time ago, I had upgraded a server. I had absolutely no documentation to go on and I was re-implementing software that hadn’t been installed on a new server in about 8 years.  The whole project was doomed from the beginning.  There should have been an appreciation among everyone involved that this would fail and equally, an appreciation of the time that would be needed to recover from that failure. Instead of that very reasonable approach, I was hailed a total ignoramus. Questions were asked about my suitability and my qualifications. At the time I blamed myself.  I privately hated myself for making this mistake.  But looking back on it even with a critical eye, there was absolutely no way I could ever have known about the undocumented dependencies of that software.  Basically there was a set up file.  This was run but there was a DLL in the software directory that was never registered.  The reason for this was that the DLL was added years after the installer was created. The software started correctly and all functions except for one worked properly. One failed. It was used for card payments.  When I finished the upgrade, people had gone home and I didn’t have a card to test payments.  Why would I.  I wasn’t expecting a problem with a specific part of the application let alone card payments!  The day after, alarms bells went off and I stayed with it until the problem was resolved.  But I just could never have known that one DLL among hundreds was included with the software but the installation process didn’t install it.  Years later, I understand that although there were things I could have done differently, the problem still would have been encountered and that person still would have found a reason to put me down. Soemtimes I’m wrong.  Sometimes we’re all wrong. But if you are getting put down even sometimes in work, go look for a second opinion. You might be doing an absolutely crap job. But you might not. Don’t stay in a situation where you are treated badly regardless.

That’s all my tips.  Not many as it turns out but keep them in mind.  Something might make a difference.

IN summary:

  1.  Make small changes.
  2. You aren’t expected to know everything all at once.
  3. Work within your own pace. find your fastest speed then slow down just a little. You’ll last longer and do a better job.
  4. find what motivates you.
  5. Do what you enjoy
  6. Work in a good space.
  7. Don’t let anyone put you down.

Looking forward to November.

I always really enjoy the month  of November.  There’s the run up to the best time of the year of course but there’s also a month of Music.

Firstly this year, we’ll have the Ennis Trad Fest.   I’ll be down there from the 8th to the 11th of November.  This weekend is just crammed with back to back wall to wall sessions with some of the best musicians in the country just wandering around for tunes.  It’s a little bit of paradise actually. You will find me playing there on the Saturday night from about 9 in Cruises.

Next is the HEAnet Higher Education authority network conference in Galway. I’m one of the main presenters this year so that’s a little daunting but I am happy as well as GAlway is one of my favourite places in Ireland for music so when people are networking at night, I’ll quietly sneak out.  The session in the thatch on Wednesdays is one of the best in my opinion.

November ends with a return to traditional Irish music in my home town. The Drogheda Trad Fest has been on the go for over 20 years now.  I have mixed thought’s about this one but I always relish and enjoy any chance to play music in my home so although I have some worries over this one, I’m still looking forward to it.

That will bring us to December and the start of that word that I’m not allowed mention yet.  so, welcome November. I’ve been looking forward to your return.

For those interested, I will be giving a detailed presentation on the role of ICT in the process of incorporating universities at the HEAnet conference.

The most comprehensive review of Aira

Here’s my honest, unbiased and real account of using the Aira service.  I didn’t get any discounts or freebies before writing this so my review is unclouded.

However, I have been enthralled by the potential of Aira since I read the first review and heard the first videos on Youtube. So although I now come to this with a very level head, I opened the package with excitement and optimism when I received the Horizon kit almost a month ago.

The box is reasonably sized.  About 13 inches diagonal and about two inches thick.  Inside there are a few plastic air bags for padding, the Aira Horizon glasses case with the glasses inside, two tethering cables, a charging cable and a plug.  There’s also a print booklet that probably has quick start instructions and a few Braille pages stapled together that also include the quick start instructions.  It’s double sided Braille but it was fortunately easy to read.

The first thing I noticed was that the instructions were very clear but not dumbed down. I hate receiving a product created for people who are blind to find that the instructions are explaining what side is up, what buttons feel like and how to plug it in.  The Aira manual assumed that you knew the basics and aside from explaining what direction the micro USB cable connected didn’t go into too much detail. I appreciated this as I’m not the fastest Braille reader and I just wanted to figure out how this worked as quickly as possible.

I was dismayed, frustrated and annoyed shortly after reading the instructions and turning on the device.   I immediately found that the glasses had no audio output.  Bone conduction would have been fantastic.  Bose make a really stylish pair of sunglasses with bone conductive sound output in the arms of the glasses.  Surely Aira could have done the same.  In addition, the Bose sunglasses worked over Bluetooth where as the Aira Horizon glasses connect over a cable.  At minimum, the tether cable could have another cable attached on to it with an earphone and a microphone.  This could then connect into the 3.5mm audio port that sits right beside the micro USB port.  Having a second cable isn’t ideal of course but it’s a lot better than supplying nothing at all.  I ask you. What is the point in renting the Horizon kit that includes the glasses if by default you then need to hold the Horizon phone in your hand?  It negates the main benefit of the glasses for the user. A cheap Bluetooth earpiece doesn’t cost all that much. Also, by pre-paring it, you would remove some of the complexity of using such a device.  I’ll get to my horrific experience with Bluetooth later because although I feel very negatively about this particular part of the experience, overall, I’m very happy with Aira and I don’t want to come across as not liking what they do. Because it’s quite the opposite for the most part.

The first time I used Aira it was to look around a garden that I knew would have a lot of obstacles.  The agent gave me a fantastic description of what was around me.  There were a few toys in the garden for children, so the agent gave me descriptions of what they looked like, where they were and even how one of them worked.  There was a toy with two holes, a ramp and a ball.  I had no idea what this was for so the agent I spoke to googled it and gave me a description of the game.  When my children came outside, I was able to give them pointers based on what I knew they would like.  For example, I knew Méabh would love the game.  I knew Rían would love the playhouse.  So, although I had never been in that area before, I was able to encourage both children and join in with them when exploring the new activities without any in-person sighted assistance.  This was incredibly empowering and marked the beginning of many great experiences with Aira. Let me go through a few of these very briefly because to detail each one would require separate blog posts but there are important points that are good and bad that I would really like you to be aware of.

  • In the Arboretum in Dallas, the agent took pictures of the area and of my children, my wife and my mother in law.  The agent also described the area in clear detail.  At one point my wife and mother in law went to an area that I didn’t really want to walk through.  So I connected to Aira again and the agent enabled me to take a walk independently around the grounds of this massive arboretum.  The descriptions that were given were fantastic.  At one point the agent described a tree as being rainbow shaped.  I was guided over to it so that I could feel it.  I got some landmarks off the agent so that when I met up with my family again I could independently bring them back to this weird rainbow shaped tree.  Again, this was very empowering, but it was also quite special for my daughter in particular.  Her daddy had found a rainbow tree while they were away.  Méabh is a very caring child.  She’s 6 now and especially when I don’t have my guide dog, she looks out for me. It’s not just me she looks out for of course.  If a child falls in a playground she’s one of the first over to see if everything is okay. She just has that nature.  So to be able to show her that I can be very independent even in completely new environments meant something to her.
  • Colorful picture of the gardens. Taken by an Aira agent through the Horizon glasses

  • There were two times when just getting a coffee where Aira came in particularly handy. The first time, the agent found a suitable route and guided me right to the counter.  It was very useful as the fastest route had no paths or side walks as they are called in America. So the agent found a route that would be safer.  The second time was nice as well.  The agent directed me to the counter then stayed really quiet.  When the server came near, the agent told me where he was so I could point in that direction and place the order.  When the coffee came out, the agent told me where to feel for it then offered to find a free table.
  • I had the children on my own in a house that I wasn’t familiar with and as is commonly required, they needed food. I knew where the food was and I knew where the oven was as well.  The Aira agent read out the cooking instructions on the packaging then even helped me to find the right temperature and setting on the oven.
  • Now, here’s a bad experience. I was with my son and he needed a toilet. The Aira agent showed me where the toilet door was but really started to panic when I went to walk through the door.  I understand now that this is because they are prohibited from recording but the agent handled this very badly.  We had discussed where I needed to find. If the agent told me ahead of time of the rule, I would have explained what my requirement was and I’m sure we could have come to an agreement.  I knew that the toilet that I was looking for was a single room where no one else could enter so my request was workable.  The problem I have that I had hoped Aira could help me solve is as follows:  When I bring my son to the toilet, I detest putting my hands down on anything and I cringe with dread with the thought’s of him putting his hands on anything Revolting either.  Men’s toilets can be disgusting places.  So, I spend some time before I let him do what he needs simply determining to a reasonable level that the place isn’t covered in pee.  I would have greatly appreciated it if the agent could have taken a quick look at the toilet area and given me an indication as to if the place was filthy or not.  Also, in what direction the toilet was in the room as well.  These are simple things that people take for granted and when I’m on my own, I’m not particularly bothered with but when you have a very young child along as well, it’s prudent to be more aware and careful.  The agent really didn’t handle this to the expected high standard.
  • One of my favourite experiences with Aira was again related to my children. We were at a massive Lego exhibition, an expansive city scape stretched out in front of me behind glass walls.  At intervals control panels were placed to enable interactive features.  For example, buttons in front of a stadium turned on and off lights.  Buttons at a construction site moved a crane around.  Buttons at a train station turned on and off the lights and moved the trains.  It was great to walk around this exhibit with my two children and be able to share in the excitement of this really impressive Lego city.  All while an Aira agent discreetly gave me details.  Well, reasonably discreetly, I couldn’t get the Bluetooth headset working but it was fine for that environment.   This was especially great for my son.  To bring him over and know that if he pressed particular buttons specific actions could be seen through the glass was great.   He was amazed.
  • A picture taken with the Horizon glasses by the Aira agent. It shows the Lego made city scape.Of course there are the other every day needs as well. Someone sent me an error message in an email that was included in a screen shot.  Indeed , I could have used OCR to read this but it takes time and it’s not always accurate.  Instead, I just held my phone in front of the screen, called Aira and the agent read the error.  This agent also demonstrated the usefulness of Aira by going one step beyond.  It was obvious from the error that more text in another part of the screen was necessary to make a decision so without prompting that text was provided as well.

  • At one point, an Aira agent was guiding me to a house. We took a side street that I had never walked on before when suddenly a dog came charging toward me.  The Aira agent saw and heard the dog and calmly reassured me that the dog was actually behind a gate so couldn’t get out.  This was a relief and again shows the value of this service.

There is something you should know about me before reading my next point.  I’m terrible at accepting help.  Even when I really need it.  But I am happy to pay people to help.  But when I pay people I expect high standards.  I was comfortable using Aira for both mundane and interesting tasks.  I was happy to keep the person on the line a little longer than strictly necessary to double check something or just give me a bit of extra information because I know I’m paying for this service. So I know I’m paying for the privilege of that persons time.  For this reason, I think Aira is going to be a vital tool in my independence and mobility toolkit.  But Aira has failings.

Some of the things that really annoy me about Aira and in my opinions are show stoppers for buying the Horizon kit include:

  • Lack of integrated headset in the glasses. I’ve written about this earlier.
  • Frequent signal drops. This doesn’t just happen when in large buildings.  This made me not even bother trying to use Aira sometimes.
  • Bugs in the Aira Horizon software. Sometimes if a connection is weak and you get cut off, it tries to reconnect you.  But if that too fails, the software can get stuck in a loop where it says the user with this ID is already on a call. Therefore it doesn’t connect.  Also, at times, I needed to bring the device to someone who could see as there was an error on the screen that asked to refresh or reload the Aira app. These alerts were not spoken.
  • Bluetooth again. Aira is developed in a way to make it incredibly easy to use but with this ease of use you have some trade offs.  This requires that Aira works absolutely perfectly as it is sometimes taking over from the default functionalities of the Android platform that it has been built on top of. Take this example. You try to connect a Bluetooth headset.  You hold down the button on the Aira Horizon handset and say “Turn on Bluetooth” Then you say “Connect to Bluetooth device”.  It tells you what device has been found / previously used and you say “Connect to it”. Every single time at this point I had a problem. The Bluetooth headset would be correctly connected but Aira still didn’t use it.  I know it was connected because if I press and hold the call button on the headset, the Android assistant would start talking in my ears and I could access some basic https://www.android.com functionality.  But Aira would continue talking through the phone speaker. This was absolutely infuriating. I gave up one day and threw the headset in my pocket.  Then suddenly Aira just started speaking through the headset!  But that only worked once.  And I have no idea why.  Every other time, Aira just would or could not work through Bluetooth.   Unless they fix this problem, I would strongly discourage anyone from paying for Horizon.  Because without a reliable Bluetooth headset, it’s really pointless.
  • The earlier issue where the agent panicked when I was about to walk into a toilet. That made me feel bad for the agent that I put the person in that position but then I got mad at

Aira for making me feel bad.  I don’t pay $99 per month to feel bad for someone.  That agent should have made this rule known to me before I reached that door so that I could have explained my very reasonable request.

But I must stress again, the benefits far outweigh the problems.  I will continue to use Aira.  Now that I have returned from holiday, my use case will be different but I know that it will be useful and you can be assured that I will write about my day to day use of Aira in the coming weeks.  I have sent the Horizon Horizon kit back and I am now just using my iPhone.   At least with the iPhone I can use a Bluetooth headset and if I need to carry something in my hands anyway, it may as well be the iPhone with it’s better camera. It’s also one less thing to carry around.

There’s a rumour that Apple are going to make AR Augmented Reality glasses.  I wonder if this will enable Aira to work as an app on the iPhone.

There’s one more thing I want to say.  The value in Aira isn’t it’s technology although that is certainly an impressive part.  It’s the human at the end of the line acting as your eyes.  They take this responsibility seriously and the strong training they have received is very obvious.  Their directions, respect and awareness is very clear to see.

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