KeySmart

I recently moved into a new flat, and so I got a new set of keys to get into the building. This time, both of them are the flat key type rather than the mixture of types I had previously. This gave me an idea.

In the past, I’ve seen people on EDC websites use all sorts of key organisers, and I thought I’d give it a go. There are a lot out there – so I’d recommend having a good look around, but I decided that the KeySmart would be a safe choice for me. I only have two keys and I am not too worried about having anything super hard-wearing like titanium.

With the KeySmart you get two scales, a number of washers (depending on which model you get), a loop for attaching to other keys, and screws to hold it all together.

I’ve only had it set up like this for a few weeks now, so I haven’t found out if there are any other issues (for example, I never want it to come apart and lose my keys). But in the time I’ve had it, I have been very happy.

KeySmart

I’m not in a rush, but I have been tempted to get some keys with a black finish cut especially for this. Think that would look good?

Pros

  • Way cooler than normal keys, obviously
  • Great for avoiding the jingle when running
  • Super slim profile and feels good in the hand

Cons

  • The Utili-Key I used to keep with me doesn’t really work
  • Lack of jingle means I have to really check I have my keys on me
  • Not as speedy for one handed use, but ok

Field Notes

Used Field Notes

A few months ago I tried Field Notes for the first time. I was travelling to America and didn’t want to carry both of my large Moleskine notebooks around.

I was immediately hooked.

In the past I’d tried a number of ways to keep track of notes that seemed too basic to go into my larger notebook, but too complex for my planner; the vague middle ground of half thought ideas and random bits of information. The last thing I tried was 6″ × 4″ index cards. These were a great size, but then I had a stack of index cards to worry about. (I liked index cards so much, I may still find a way to use them moving forward, but that’s another story.)

I decided to try out Field Notes for this exact purpose – anything goes. From Wi-Fi passwords to plans of world domination, in any type of pencil or ink. The Field Notes is where I empty my brain.

Field Notes

Now that I’ve started using them this way, I plan to continue to use Field Notes for this purpose for the foreseeable future, and they’ll feature prominently in my plans for my refreshed analogue setup alongside Japanese notebooks like Hobonichi and Midori. There will be more to come about that over the next few months.

Aside from their actual purpose of note taking, there are a few other things that make Field Notes special for me…

Physically wonderful

First of all I find the dimensions and the number of pages to be just right for what I’m using them for. They’re 3½″ × 5½″ and 48 pages with a card exterior. They are a perfect fit for a jeans pocket or for stuffing inside a another notebook or case. They work well as companion notebooks more than anything else.

Field Notes

The physical design is based on the old memo books and pocket ledgers popular in America’s days gone by. Revived to fill the need of analogue note taking in a digital age, they feel just right for use at home or on the move.

Colors and limited editions

As well as a few stock notebooks, Field Notes provides a ‘Colors‘ subscription service where they release four different designs throughout a year. These designs are unknown until they are released, which can be really fun and exciting. Due to the physical size of the notebook, I’m regularly burning through them and changing the edition I’m using. I really like this pace as it keeps things interesting. Differences in paper, card, and printing technique means there is plenty of variety in more than just the colour of the card stock used.

Field Notes Night Sky

They also do a number of collaborations which means there’s a lot of additional designs out there, in fact there is a very strong community of ‘Field Nuts‘ who are interested in collecting and using these different designs. I have no plans on trying to get them all or to keep them in pristine condition, but it is delightful to have so many options around the same basic notebooks style.

The best of American design

I liked the look of Aaron Draplin’s designs before I even knew who he was. With editions ranging from the classic Americana of America the Beautiful to the eye-popping colours of Unexposed, the work Draplin and the whole of the Field Notes team has done for these notebooks is absolutely outstanding, they’re always on the cutting edge of American design and trying new things.

Field Notes Workshop Companion

The simplicity of purpose and design philosophy also expands to some of the accessories you can get – from leather cases to archive boxes, the use of the Futura typeface, and even the tone of language used in the back of the book.

The Field Notes style is bold and distinct, and something I really enjoy.

They look great used

Finally, one of my favourite things about the Field Notes brand notebooks is how good they look after they’ve been used. Using analogue tools for note taking is very different to digital notes. Microsoft OneNote is always going to be pixel perfect, but my Field Notes are going to get bent, scraped, rubbed and damaged through use.

Used Field Notes

They’re mine and it just adds to the experience.

I go through Field Notes faster than any other notebook I have, so really using them seems perfectly natural. I’m much more careful with my yearly planner because I have to keep it for 12 months. It’s nice to have something I feel comfortable just grabbing and folding over to scribble on.

Productivity Music

When listening to an episode of Cortex on Relay.fm, Myke Hurley and CGP Grey talked about how they use music to get in the zone for productivity. It really resonated with me as I’ve done the same thing for many years, and one of my albums of choice was actually mentioned by Grey.

Get into the zone, work harder, associate similar tasks with the music.

There are two main benefits of doing this: one is to distract the part of the brain which is looking for distractions, and the other is to provide a familiar experience and link it with the act of getting things done.

All Day

All Day is name of the epic 2010 mashup album from Girl Talk which is needs to be experienced in order to be understood. Essentially, it’s a huge number of small snippets from loads of pieces of popular music, all smashed together in one cohesive mashup mega mix spectacular, but you’d have to listen to it to see what I mean.

Girl Talk

I use All Day and Girl Talk’s other albums (all available for free) to get myself into the zone for being productive when writing, scripting and power coding, especially when I want to feel pumped up and full of energy.

The only word of warning is that it may be a bit too distracting if you’re not familiar with the album, as you may end up trying to work out where the samples are coming from rather than concentrating on your work. I’ve been listening to this album since it came out, so a lot of the lyrics are just noise to me now.

Not only was this album mentioned on Cortext, it was also discussed on Inquisitive.

Music to Code By

Music to Code By is not an album of music. It is a productivity tool. It will help you focus intently on any task.

Developed by Carl Franklin (of .NET Rocks! fame) specifically for software developers, Music to Code By (MTCB) has been crafted to provide an easy way for the listener to get into the Flow.

Carl Franklin

The melodic loops are around 50 to 80 BPM and 25 minutes long, which is perfect for me to use as a timer without actually watching the clock. After the track finishes, I get up and go for a short walk before putting on the next track. I use this all the time, especially when I want to calmly read specifications, work through tasks, design software architecture and focus on complex problems.

MTCB isn’t free, but you can get samples from Carl’s website and order from there. I currently only have the first three tracks, but another compilation will be released soon. My favourite track is Blue.

Highlights from Build 2015

The Build 2015 conference has just taken place in San Francisco.

Like last year, this has been another huge event for Microsoft, and a big deal for the people who build solutions using their technologies.

There have been way more interesting things happening than I can possibly cover in one article, but I have decided to cover the three most important to me:

.NET, Windows and Azure.

An exciting future for .NET and Open Source

The future of .NET is the continued push to an open source .NET Core, which is at the centre of both the latest ASP.NET runtime and the Universal Windows app platform. In the future, this will expand and include other application types. In my opinion, they’ve picked the right place to start.

Applications running on the CoreCLR can be developed and deployed on cloud and server-based infrastructures running different operating systems including Windows, Linux and OS X. I have been watching the development efforts on GitHub for a while now, and I’ve set it up on my own machines running both Windows and Linux. It sure is a sight to see.

As well as the core runtime itself going open source, other technologies like Roslyn have enabled products that many wouldn’t have guessed would see the light of day. Having an open source compiler platform has enabled Visual Studio Code – a new cross platform text editor with Intellisense – to be built.

I was lucky enough to see Visual Studio Code before it was announced, and it changed the way I thought about collaboration with Mac users instantly. I’ll have more on this new text editor soon.

Visual Studio Code

With the RC of Visual Studio 2015 there have been some big improvements in the languages supported including both the more traditional C# and Visual Basic, and (my personal favourite) F#.

The Visual F# improvements in ‘every day’ activities are dramatic for anyone who has been using the language. This is all thanks to the new open source attitude, and the amazing community around F# who have helped to develop the Visual F# tools on GitHub.

This new world of cross-platform and open source .NET technology is going to enable some amazing scenarios for .NET developers like myself.

Windows 10’s application platform takes shape

The aforementioned Universal Windows app platform is really taking shape now. Gone are the days of very prescriptive (and maybe too forward-looking) design patterns of Windows 8, and in is the ‘do what’s right for your applications‘ model that has been working well for some for a while.

Universal Windows apps scale from the smallest phones and Internet of Things devices up to the large screens of the Xbox One and the Surface Hub. The most ‘universal’ of these apps are built with just one binary which includes a scalable UI. This allows you to even have the ‘desktop’ app experience when used on a landscape 5.7 inch phone, or when plugged into an external screen using an amazing new Continuum for Phones feature.

For app developers there are some interesting (and controversial) new ways for software venders to build for Windows. The biggest of which are the bridges from Android and iOS. These two are extremely important for the phone and work especially well for iOS games which don’t rely too heavily on the operating specific UI elements. Combined with the bridges for ‘classic windows’ apps and websites using Microsoft Edge, the Store should get a lot more apps on this Windows 10 wave of releases.

From a user’s view, Windows 10 has really rounded out, with the latest Insider Preview feeling a lot more polished than any of the previous builds. Seeing HoloLens run standard Windows Universal apps was a big deal too.

I’ll have more thoughts on these in the future as the Insider Preview continues, and more information for HoloLoens is released at E3.

Microsoft <3 Docker and other Azure improvements

Azure, and the Microsoft Cloud in general, continue to amaze me. Microsoft has managed to embrace this new way of building (and selling) software in at breakneck speed. Additional services were added throughout the platform all the way from storage and networking, to analytics and machine learning. Way too many for this article.

Two of the biggest highlights were the ability to run the complete Azure Stack locally, and Azure’s new Data Lake features too, something which Amazon has had a lot of success with.

Microsoft <3 Docker

For me though, the most interesting changes were around Docker support across Windows and Azure. Docker has been on my radar for a while, but I have yet to use it in production. I have plans to do so in the not too distant future.

Kyoei Orions Grid Ruler

Kyoei Orions Grid Ruler

I know what you’re thinking. Who really cares about what kind of ruler they use?

Well, apparently, I do.

I originally purchased a Helix drafting set when I started studying mathematics back in 2008. I mostly used the ruler to draw lines, diagrams, and all the good things you do when you’re studying maths. After I completed my second year, I put my ruler away in one of my pencil cases and forgot about it.

When I started studying again last year, I dug it out and used it in my Moleskine notebook. When procrastinating from my studies, I ended up using it in my weekly journal for drawing extra boxes for health data and other things I found interesting.

I was hooked. Whenever I added an extra table of data to my journal, I wanted it to be nicely lined up with the other sections. I continued to use this ruler for a while, but then I found something pretty amazing, a better ruler. Maybe even the best ruler? (For me, anyway)

From the moment I saw the Kyoei Orions Grid Ruler on JetPens, I knew I wanted to have one. (Feel free to check out the Kyoei site, if you know Japanese).

What’s so special about this ruler I hear you ask?

  • Every edge is used
  • No inches, just metric
  • Horizontal and vertical labels
  • Highlights every 5 cm
  • Starts at both 0 mm and -5 mm
  • 5mm grid lines everywhere

The most important feature is the 5 mm grid, which means that you can align the ruler both vertically and horizontally when drawing lines.

This is much better than most rulers, where you have to use use the small indicators on the side to align the ruler. Generally these don’t even line up with each other anyway, due to each side having a different measurement system. (Also why did Helix put a blue background on the indicators? Madness!)

This isn’t a problem with the Grid Ruler, as everything is metric. The edge-to-edge measurements are great for lining up to the inside of a notebook page too, especially when it also uses a 5 mm grid.

Kyoei Orions Grid Ruler

I like this ruler so much I got a couple of them to use both at work and at home along with my Kuru Togas and Boxy Erasers.

Microsoft Future Vision 2015

I’ve always been inspired by the Microsoft ‘Future Vision’ videos which depict a not-too-distant vision of productivity. This year’s entry has not been a disappointment, with a number of interesting UI concepts explored.

The best thing to do is watch the video above to see them all, but I’ve picked four of my favourites below.

Augmented Reality + Tactile Controls

I’m not really what to call this, so I’m just going to call it a ‘holographic puck’. In this instance, a round hardware device can be rotated to make selections on a holographic UI which has been augmented over the top of Kat’s vision.

By mixing the feel of tactile controls with the holographic interfaces you can avoid the strange experience of ‘tapping thin air’ while still providing the users with the infinite possibilities of augmented reality.

Holographic puck

I really like this concept, and it’s not too unrealistic considering the holographic technology coming in Windows 10. Later in the video you see the same hardware device used to transfer the data collected in the first scene.

Flexible Digital Notebooks

Opening the flexible computer

My favourite concept from the whole video is shown when our hero attends a café. The tea selection is shown on this flexible display, and when Kat opens it all of her personal stuff is automatically available to her.

While I think the folding doesn’t look as amazing as it could be (give me a proper notebook style folding, please) – it is a great example of the kind of computers we will be using in the future, and something I really want.

Flexible computer

Being a massive notebook and stationery nerd, I really love the idea of having a flexible notebook computer like this. I hope it happens in the not-too-distant future. The Surface line of computers already has rich inking capability, so it’s only going to get better over time.

Wearable Computing Devices

Throughout the video only one computer looks like it belongs exclusively Kat. The screen on her wrist is probably the equivalent of the smartphone today, being a general purpose communication and computing device.

Wrist computer

This is quite a way off the current Microsoft Band, but the technology sector is certainly going this direction. My Band has already helped give me the motivation to be fitter and healthier, and while we don’t really see much in the way of health statistics in this video, it can certainly be inferred from the way things are going.

Large Table-like Displays

Large table

I also love this large table computer concept. When Kat needs to get some real work done, she just uses her wearable computer to hand off to a bigger computer in a shared workspace.

I’m sure this kind of keyboard-free interaction will be best suited to a world where voice interaction has been perfected. Though I’m sure a software keyboard could be provided. You can even see Kat use a Bluetooth headset (Bragi Dash?) to work with Cortana-like assistant in the top left of the UI.

Captivated by Her

When reading an article about how design is shaping the new Microsoft, I stumbled upon a video by Kat Holmes from last year.

In this video, Kat talks about how conversations power innovation and new experiences. She goes on to discuss how the movie Her both validated and shaped Microsoft’s thinking around their Cortana digital assistant.

Like Kat I have found the movie Her to have a fascinating look at the future of human and computer interaction, primarily through verbal communication and relationship building. While the movie certainly takes the relationship part of the equation to the extreme, I firmly believe that this kind of trust between digital agents and ourselves will eventually enable a new kind of human excellence.

her

Microsoft also collaborated with Vice’s Motherboard to produce a couple of short documentary videos titled Captivated by Her. They’re well worth watching if you’re interested in how human emotion inspires and shapes technology.

Holographic Computing is Coming

Microsoft HoloLens

A bit like something out of their Future Vision videos, Microsoft’s Windows Holographic software and HoloLens hardware look to enable many of the augmented reality dreams technologists like myself have been imagining for years.

Truly I’m excited about this platform, and I’m keen to try out the product as soon as I possibly can, but I still have a large amount of questions.

What happens if you put your hand ‘in front’ of a hologram?
If you have a virtual 80 inch TV screen – what resolution does it have?
Can you stream Xbox games to it?
How long does the battery last?
Can other people hear the audio from the speakers located on the side?
How hot is the air that comes out of the vents?
How well does it work with glasses?
Will there be a holographic version of PowerShell?

It may be a while until all our questions are answered, but until then I’m going to simply imagine the possibilities this new form of computing will bring. Check out the videos below and have a look at Microsoft’s website to get an idea of what’s coming.

As someone who is always trying to simplify and keep things minimalistic, I always question new technologies to decide if they’re really worth investing in. One part of my believes I already have enough computing devices, but another part yearns to try new technology and find new ways to interact with the digital world. The HoloLens definitely seems like something I’m going to want to experience.

Will it be a success? Only time will tell. But future versions of the hardware will no doubt be smaller, and have better field of view. One day this kind of thing will simply be built into a normal pair of glasses – but that’s a little way off.

More to come soon.

Remote Desktop to the Cloud

Remote Desktop for Windows Desktop

For the last six months I’ve been using an Windows 8.1 virtual machine running in Microsoft Azure for various day-to-day developer activities. It has ended up being extremely useful to have a full Windows machine that’s accessible from any place and any device.

Azure

The VM I’m using is A2 Standard and running Windows 8.1, set up with my Microsoft account so all my apps are working on it properly – from Windows Store to Office 365.

Most importantly it also provides an always-on development platform for all my applications even when my main PC is being reinstalled with the Windows 10 technical preview builds. I have access to Visual Studio, F# Interactive, Node.js and all my usual scripting tools in PowerShell at any time.

Remote Desktop for Windows Phone

The remote desktop client for Windows Phone is truly brilliant too, with support for a virtual mouse pad enabling me to get access to applications like Visual Studio or Outlook at any time. True it’s a little fiddly, but it’s really powerful.

Azure’s Virtual Machines suite me as I have a number of credits every month, and nowhere at home to keep a server that could be on 24/7. Overall I’m really pleased with the service.