Organisation

This category is for all things relating to Organisation, Planning, and Action Managment.

Waking Up with Light

I like to keep a pretty fixed schedule for my days so that I can be as productive as possible. In the winter I find it especially hard to get up in the dark mornings, and traditionally I have just forced myself to wake up using alarms.

For the last 3 months I have been using a Philips Wake-Up Light Alarm Clock to help me wake get out of bed with a more positive attitude.

Philips Wake-Up Light Alarm Clock

I used to have an alarm on my phone set for 06:30 every day, but now I have the light alarm set for 06:00. It actually turns on at 05:30 and gradually brightens over half an hour. I usually wake up before the light reaches its full luminosity, and I’m fully awake and ready to go before 06:30 without feeling like I have been rudely awoken.

Unfortunately I had to make a modification to the alarm to get it to work the way I actually wanted. Because I got the least expensive version, it didn’t include any options for changing the alarm sound. I don’t understand why this alarm has such an annoying, loud, high pitched beep for something which is meant to wake you more naturally.

Why did Philips add an annoying beep to an alarm that is meant to wake you naturally? Totally bizarre.

Anyway, using my Leatherman I cut open the alarm and removed the offending speaker. Now the light comes on in the morning and automatically stays on for two hours before switching itself off. No interaction required. (And yes, I could have done a better job at opening it up, but I can’t stress how annoying the beep is…)

I’m really pleased with it now, though there is definitely room for improvement. Philips do make a number of other models in the range, however a lot of them include features like radio that I don’t care for. I’ll certainly be looking at using this method to wake from now on – especially in the winter months.

Cortana comes to the UK

Something I can do for you, Jules?

When I first started using Cortana four months ago, she immediately became a useful asset for things like reminders and search. Over time she got much better at giving me local information about places, events, and restaurants automatically.

The other thing that improved greatly was her voice and personality. She started to tell jokes, sing songs, answer trivia related questions and much more. Over the four months I grew attached to the personality, and got used to the voice.

When Cortana officially arrived in the UK they did the expected localisations work, like using Celsius rather than Fahrenheit. But they also changed her voice – and therefor her personality – to be British, and for some reason this means she is a lot more formal and a lot less friendly.

Microsoft Cortana

In the United States, Microsoft’s personal assistant is voiced by Jen Taylor – the original voice of Cortana from the Halo series of video games. Her voice is friendly and bouncy, and has lots of emotion.

Over the pond things are different, Cortana has been voiced by someone else for the British market. My initial reaction was that this new voice sounded slightly robotic like a generic ‘sat nav’. This is obviously not a good thing for the technology.

I’m not really surprised though. There is no single British accent, and unless you’re going to provide dozens of options, you’re probably going to choose one that sounds like ‘BBC English‘.

It turns out that the way a computer speaks to you is absolutely fundamental to the way a vocal user interface works. As we move into this world of natural voice interaction, we need to understand what this means on the human level. In this case it feels to me that my personal assistant has left her job, and has been replaced by someone else. Against my wishes.

Localisation aside, Cortana is pretty much the full featured version that you get over in the United States, for example here is what Cortana showed me on Saturday the 16th of August while I was studying in the library.

Cortana on Windows Phone 8.1 GDR 1

As you can see there’s a lot of information here and almost all of it stuff I wanted to see, though I must admit I could quite happily see some improvements in how she finds potentially relevant news. Ideally I’d like to have something like Techmeme‘s ability to surface technology news.

Overall, I’m extremely pleased with Cortana and I’ve already noticed improvements in the voice to make it less robotic. But I have to admit, I’d much rather keep the original voice of Jen Taylor and combine it with the ability to tell me temperatures in Celsius.

Is that too much to ask for?

How I like to Study

stargazing

After taking a 4 year break from studying, I decided to ease myself in gently by studying a subject with which I was already fairly familiar. I opted to go for Galaxies, Stars and Planets, a short course with the Open University that has helped me formalise many of the concepts I have learned through being a member of The York Astronomical Society.

Location

My location of choice is the JB Morrell Library at the University of York. I’ve frequented the library since I worked at the Science Park in 2008. Back then, I was studying mathematics and I loved how studious the atmosphere was. Since then, the library has been refurbished making it even easier to get access to things like power sockets.

uni-library

I do actually have a favourite spot on the second floor which has a nice view and isn’t very far away from the toilets and recycling facilities. There is also a chilled water fountain nearby – but if water isn’t strong enough the Café is just downstairs. (Which is great for my Fitbit floors goal!)

The Morrell Library is located on the Heslington West campus. It is only a short walk to get to the largest plastic bottomed lake in Europe (fans of QI will understand the reference). I have found that it is a lovely place to walk around, and it gives me some exercise and fresh air when taking a break from studying.

bridge

Equipment

The course I’m currently studying centres around one key text book, which is supplied to me as part of the material sent by The Open University. It’s also available online in PDF and epub formats. The latter of which can be used (via conversion) with the Kindle.

large-scale-universe

My Kindle has been the main way I have read the study material while working on the course, and it’s obviously a lot easier to carry than the larger study book. I also keep a copy of the PDF versions on my Surface Pro 2 just in case I need to look at the diagrams in colour.

The Surface Pro is also great for the online elements, including watching videos provided by the Open University, which accompany the course.

einstein

I decided to use a Moleskine notebook to work through the activities and make notes. It actually ended up being larger than I needed, so I think the type of notebook I use will be something I look into changing, for the next course.

Because all the equipment I use is so small, everything fits in my Knomo bag without any problems. In previous years I had been carrying around a large backpack which contained more books, a larger computer and a calculator or two. Keeping things light and simple means I have less to carry with me when I study, helping make the whole experience more enjoyable.

dark-matter

Software and Services

When I started the course back in May, I set about doing a lot of the meta-work up front. This meant that I could just rely on these things moving forward.

  1. I downloaded all the images, videos, and other materials from the OU website and put them on my OneDrive, setting them to always be available offline on my Surface Pro
  2. I made a list of all the work that would be required in the study plan and put it all into OneNote as a task list
  3. I put the milestones and study dates for the whole course into my Outlook calendar
  4. I set up the Aladdin Sky Atlas software using IKVM.NET on my Surface, so that I didn’t need Java
  5. I converted the study book from epub into the Kindle format, and stored PDF versions for the Surface

When actually working on the activities and reading the material, I’ve also used Windows Calculator, Bing Wikipedia, Periodic Table and Star Chart. These applications have helped me do mathematics, look up further reading, and – very importantly – visualise the solar system using 3D graphics.

sun-diameter

hydrogen

The extra programs that the Surface Pro provided where not required for the course, but certainly helped.

Mindset

I decided that I only wanted to study at my study location, which means I go there once a week, every week and make no compromises about that. If a friend suggests doing something on one of these days, I’ve just had to be firm and say no.

surface-library

But doing it this way has really suited me, as it gets me away from a home full of distractions and into a productive environment with other people wanting to get things done. The motivation of wanting to progress my work has been enough to keep me going.

I may have found it a lot easier on this course because it’s a subject I already understand more than the average person, so I’ll be really interested to see how well I fare when I pick a new subject next year.

While I’m not ruling out taking time off again, I’m certainly planning to continue my mindset of life-long learning for the foreseeable future. I’m sure the way I like to study will only improve over time.

Using Windows Reading List

When Windows 8.1 came out it included an application called Windows Reading List, which used the Share functionality of Windows to bookmark articles which can be read later.

Any application that shares the right kind of information can be used with Reading List, but the applications I use most often are Internet Explorer, Flipboard and the Bing applications.

Reading List

When you share an article to Reading List it asks you which category to use. I have set myself up with categories for software development resources, health and fitness information and general inspiration for life and work.

Adding articles on either Windows or Windows Phone will use your Microsoft account to synchronise automatically. This is completely seamless in both applications – meaning there are no options to configure these settings at all. I’m quite happy with this, but I know that some power users would prefer the option to choose how the information is synchronised with their computers.

Reading List and Internet Explorer in Reading Mode

When you use the application on Windows, clicking on one of the articles will open up another window next to the snapped reading list. I love this feature, and it really goes to show the strengths of multitasking with the modern interface in Windows.

Doing the same on the phone just opens Internet Explorer, the related application, or prompts you to search the store if you pick something that is incompatible. For example the Bing Wikipedia app isn’t currently available on Windows Phone, so clicking articles from this app prompt you to search the store.

Reading List for Windows Phone

The addition of the Windows Phone version of this application has really increased its use for me, however it’s obvious uses are diminished when used with older versions of Windows.

At work I use Windows 7 for my development machine, and there’s no way I can share interesting links found here with my Reading List. While I’m not expecting Microsoft to create a desktop app, a simple bookmarklet or browser extension would certainly do the job for collecting new articles to be read later.

Hi, Cortana!

Cortana in Halo

More personality than Google Now and more personal than Siri. Cortana is Microsoft’s personal assistant, providing a natural language interface to Windows Phone 8.1. Even though Cortana is not available in the UK yet, I switched my regional settings to US to enable her.

If you don’t know already, Cortana takes her name from the AI computer in the Halo series of video games, published by Microsoft Studios for the Xbox. In the Halo universe, she assists Master Chief throughout their adventures – getting emotionally attached along the way.

Hi, Jules!

Today’s Cortana shares the same name, voice and some of the attitude, though the primary focus is for her to be a loyal employee. The development team went out and interviewed real personal assistants – the ones who look after calendars and communications for business executives. The aim was to build a personal assistant who is able to anticipate the needs of their boss – the user – before they know what they need.

Cortana Tile Animation

While Cortana doesn’t share the same visual appearance of her namesake, the abstract appearance is probably one of the smartest moves the development team could have made. Using animations to give emotion, Cortana will look pleased to see you when you load her up, as well as looking thoughtful when processing requests. It’s my understanding this will be expanded and improved upon as time goes on, allowing her to look sad when your favourite sports team has just lost a match.

“remind me to go running when I get home”

The speech recognition is really good, though you don’t have to speak to her every time you want her to do something. You can type in an instruction in the same way you would speak it “remind me to go running when I get home” and she’ll silently confirm that she understood your intentions. This is a great feature, and I can see a lot of potential for this text based interaction. If I can switch to Cortana while writing code and just type a request without taking my hands off the keyboard – I’d be very happy. (PowerShell module anyone?)

Go running when you get home

Reminders through Cortana are very powerful for me in many ways. I use my Office 365 calendar all the time – and Cortana can interact with that by creating and managing appointments, but she can also create what I like to call ‘disposable reminders’ which are essentially one-off reminders that are based on time or location.

The places Cortana knows are powered by the Bing Maps service, something I’ve already been using for years. From day-one I had the benefit of Cortana already knowing about the dozens of places around the world I’d previously marked as favourites.

Bing Maps for Windows 8.1

Cortana now lets me to go one step further by giving these places a nickname. This allows me to say things like “remind me to pick up eggs when I go to the shop” and she’ll know I mean my village shop.

If I want to be a little less specific, I can say “remind me to pick up eggs when I go to Tesco” and Cortana will ask me “which Tesco?” and I can reply “Any”. This is great for when you are traveling or staying away from home and just want to use any store. She’ll also tell you which one is closest, naturally.

Bing Maps for Windows Phone 8.1

Travel can also be tracked by Cortana, though I haven’t had the opportunity to try it yet. It’s my understanding that she can track flights as well as provide useful information like weather and currency exchange rates for your local destinations.

Cortana Diagram

Already I have gotten used to having Cortana around. For example, I often use my Surface in bed with a stylus. This lets me write down my thoughts in OneNote. When I’m using a pen like this in a full screen experience – I don’t want to switch the search app, bring up the on-screen keyboard, or type in a query to get results. I can just pick up my nearby phone and speak a query like “how large is mars” or “how old is Patrick Stewart”

Cortana Bing Search

Answers to queries like these are also powered by Bing – my search engine of choice. However she does get stumped at some things. For example, when I asked her the current phase of the moon, she didn’t know the answer.

Things will no doubt get better though, and I already think she’s become a valuable asset to me in the pursuit of getting things done, and being productive.

Hi, Cortana! I hope we can be friends.

What’s your every day carry? 2014 Edition

In 2012 I did both what’s in your bag and what’s your every day carry posts, and this year I have decided to revisit both.

Also check out What’s in your bag? 2014 Edition

What's your every day carry?

Windows Phone

My Windows Phone of choice at the moment is the Nokia Lumia 920. If I had to pick a new one today I’d go for the 1020 because of the impressive camera – however I’m going to continue to use the 920 until the next generation of phones powered by Windows Phone 8.1 hit the market. (Very soon!)

Wallet

I am still using an All-Ett wallet, and this one – the small leather ‘sports’ version – is still going strong after getting it in June 2012.

Keys

I carry two keys with me all the time, and I’m still keeping it as simple as possible. I am also still carrying the Swiss Tech Utili-Key, because you get so much for such a small package.

Fitbit

I’ve recently started carrying a Fitbit One with me all the time. This passively records statistics like number of steps and calories burned. It has quickly become an essential item for keeping track of my health and fitness – and I even purchased a second device immediately when I realised I had lost my original one.

Pro-tip: Don’t lose it!

What's your every day carry?

What’s changed?

I no longer carry earphones with me, as I keep a pair in the office and I have a pair at home. Both are the Nokia Purity in-ear type. I like them.

The addition of the Fitbit One is something pretty recent, and I’ll be keeping an eye on other wearable devices that are compatible with Windows moving forward – I love getting all the statistics.

Last of all, I’d like to mention that while this is the minimum I carry, it’s not the only things – when I’m out doing astronomy I have a set of items I take with me, and I recently got a new bag to carry my personal computers around when visiting friends and family.

What’s in your bag? 2014 Edition

In 2012 I did both what’s in your bag and what’s your every day carry posts, and this year I have decided to revisit both.

Also check out What’s your every day carry? 2014 Edition

What’s in your bag?

Unchanged since around 2008, I still carry my Tumi work backpack which I carry into the office every day. If you’re interested in what I carry with me when I’m not at work then have a look at my Knomo Kilkenny bag for Microsoft Surface.

Dell Laptop

My work laptop is a pretty powerful Dell M4600 with an Intel Core i7 processor and 8 gigs of RAM. I’ve had less problems with this machine than the old HP I used to use, so you won’t hear any complaints from me. Though I have had my eye on the newer Dell workstations that include up to 32 gigs of RAM. Yes please.

USB Stick and USB Cable

It’s a tradition of mine to get a new USB stick every time I change jobs. This one contains debuggers, software installers, eBooks, and backups of my scripts and utilities. I never use these USB sticks for personal information about me, my employer or my clients – it only has the software I need to get up and running.

I also carry a standard micro USB cable, because you never know when it’ll be handy for charging my phone.

Notebooks

I still carry two Moleskine notebooks, but these days I track a lot more work stuff in OneNote – so the black work notebook has become more of a check list for most important tasks with space for notes. I tend to use about two pages a week.

Keys and Pencil Case

I carry a couple of keys with me in my work bag, including ones I need while I’m in the office. I also carry a small pencil case which includes the following:

What’s in your bag?

What’s changed?

The biggest change is the computer, and thankfully I no longer carry my charging adapter with me all the time, as I have a docking station in the office. I keep a spare charger at home, and if I ever need to go see a client I can just take that with me. Thanks to my recently replaced battery, I actually have plenty of power to do email and other tasks when I get home without needing to plug in anyway.

The next biggest change is probably the lack of paper notes. I used to carry a MUJI document folder with various printed specifications and other helpful documents. These days I try to print out as little as possible – mostly for security reasons.

I don’t carry a mouse in my bag either, again this is because my docking station at work is already set up with my Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard and Mobile Mouse. I have a spare mouse at home, for if I need it.

Finally, the Zune HD has been retired – these days I listen to Xbox Music, and when I’m at work that means my Lumia 920 – which is part of my Every Day Carry.

My Multi-Tools

There is something I really like about multi-tools. Especially ones that fold up into neat packages. Here are all the multi-tools that I own, and each one has its own purpose:

Victorinox Cyber Tool

Victorinox Cyber Tool

My Victorinox Cyber Tool was the first real Swiss army knife I got, and I was lucky enough to win it through a radio show. This version of the Cyber Tool is the most complete version that Victorinox made, and has 41 tools by their count. While I must admit I don’t use all of them, a great deal have been extremely useful over the years. The most unique features of this particular knife, is that it has a socket driver, which has been used to open and repair computers and other electronics. It has now been discontinued.

Wenger Ranger

Wenger Ranger

My Wenger Ranger 55 knife has gone camping with me many times, and has been used for a very large amount of tasks, including cutting cardboard, rope, opening tins and sawing fire wood. I decided to get the version that included a bottle opener – rather than a screw driver – because it seemed more likely that I would need that tool when camping, however I think all of the wine I have enjoyed while camping was either a screw top, or in a box. I originally ordered a black version of this knife, but received a version with camouflage themed scales. I decided to keep it.

Sigg Cutlery

Sigg Cutlery

Also for camping, my Sigg cutlery set has been very handy. Personally, I would have preferred it if they hadn’t included the bottle opener on the fork – as it seems that almost every other multi-tool has a bottle opener already. But, despite the strange shape of the fork and the sharpness of the knife, it has served me well. It turns out that the spoon gets most of the eating action in this set – and the knife and fork are more often used while actually cooking.

Victorinox Classic

Victorinox Classic

The tool I use the most by far is my tiny Victorinox Classic pen knife. This little knife usually lives inside a bag which also contains various medications and nail clippers. I’m guessing this is also the most used pair of scissors I own – outside of my kitchen.

Leatherman Wave

Leatherman Wave

Around the flat I tend to use my Leatherman Wave for a number of tasks, the pliers have helped out when fixing handles on doors, and the large blade has been very handy for cutting cardboard. I have a number of bits which can be used with the screwdriver which are great. This is also the sharpest blade I have.

Leatherman Squirt

Leatherman Squirt

When I am out doing astronomy (or hanging around our observatory) I always take my Astronomy Every Day Carry tools with me. Included in the kit is my little Leatherman Squirt PS4. The pliers, knife, screwdrivers and scissors all get plenty of action with this tool, and I’m always pleased to have it when I need it.

Swiss-Tech Utili-Key

Swiss-Tech Utili-Key

The Swiss-Tech Utili-Key 6-In-1 is the smallest of all my multi-tools, and the one that goes with me literally everywhere. There’s no chance I’d go for anything larger, as keeping my keys small is the top priority… but thanks to the small size of the Swiss-Tech Utili-Key, it is no worse than carrying one extra key. I mostly use the blade on this tool, but the tiny screwdrivers have saved me on a number of occasions.

Knomo Kilkenny bag for Microsoft Surface

Knomo Kilkenny

I spent a lot of time looking around for a bag that will suit my current computing habits – I found myself taking my Surface with me when I went to see friends and family quite often. I used a bag I already owned which was not really designed to hold a computer – and I worried about it. I knew I needed something that would keep my computer safe.

First I thought about what I wanted to be able to carry and came up with a list of must-haves and optional extras that would all need to be able to fit – though not at the same time.

  • Surface Pro (10.6 inch screen)
  • Surface Mini (when they make one!)
  • Arc Touch Mouse (Surface Edition)
  • Mechanical Pencil and Surface Pen
  • USB sticks & USB cables
  • Moleskine Notebook
  • Amazon Kindle
  • Nintendo 3DS XL
  • Surface Charger

I decided I wanted it to go one of two ways:

  • Backpack
  • Cross-Body Messenger Bag

Eventually, after whittling it down to two* very different options, I decided to go for the Knomo Kilkenny cross body messenger bag, designed for laptops and tablets with screens up to around 11 inches. While it is not designed to be used with the Surface as such, it fits really well without being so tight that I wouldn’t be able to switch the computer out to something of a similar in the future. It’s also leather, which means it will hopefully last even longer than the technology it will hold.

Here’s how I’m using it…

The padded back compartment is specifically designed to hold a laptop or tablet, there’s no extra pockets in here and my Surface Pro 2 fits really nicely. This will be the only purpose for this back section to ensure I never accidentally scratch or damage the computer.

Knomo Kilkenny

The middle compartment is probably going to be the most changeable, and there is plenty of room for a second Surface tablet, Amazon Kindle, or Nintendo 3DS XL. There are two pockets a nice amount of padding as well as a zipped compartment providing a number of options for storing cables, devices or chargers depending on what I need.

Knomo Kilkenny

The front compartment is protected by a zip, and has a couple of small pockets as well as two loops for pens. I must admit the space for the pens is a little shorter than my other backpack, making both my Surface Pen and my Koru Toga fit tightly – but they do fit.

There’s also a back pocket and while I wouldn’t use it normally, it is ideal for picking up mail or storing documents for quick access. Very pleased to have it.

Knomo Kilkenny

I’m really happy with this bag. The quality is high, and it contains just the right mixture of storage verses size that I wanted. Especially when compared to the bag I was using, I’m sure that the Knomo Kilkenny will protect my most important electronic devices.

* the alternative was the Grid-It backpack. It is super cool, but a little big for what I needed.

Astronomy Every Day Carry

Astronomy Every Day Carry

As an amateur astronomer I have a number of handy tools or utilities that I like to keep with me when I’m out looking at the stars. While the things I want to have to hand at any given time changes depending on what I’m doing, there are always some essentials I’ll want to have.

For example, if I’m taking photos I’ll want my Canon 7D and my tripod. If I’m going away to Star Camp, I’ll want to take my binoculars as well as my computer for taking time lapse video.

On almost every occasion, there is a requirement for a torch – preferably a red one, to avoid damaging night vision. Because this is the most important tool, this serves as the center of my everyday astronomy kit.

Olight M20 Crimson

Red Torch

After spending a lot of time researching torches, I discovered the Olight M20 Crimson while I was at an astronomy show. It’s actually very bright and has multiple settings from 3.5 lumens up to 100 lumens. This could well be too bright if you are using it to illuminate a star chart or camera equipment, but it is fantastic for lighting up where you are going as you walk around an observatory or at a dark location.

  • Ultra bright red Cree LED
  • Three brightness settings with memory
  • Tail switch with momentary on
  • Anodised black steel construction
  • Various included accessories
  • Handy carry case

The only thing I don’t really care for is the strobe feature. While I can imagine it being useful for an emergency, it’s just not something I would use for astronomy and it can be activated by mistake. But I’m willing to put up with this superfluous feature for the fact that this torch is so high quality when compared to other (incredibly poor) astronomy torches on the market.

Leatherman Squirt PS4

Multi-Tool

I know many people carry either blades or multi-tools with them all the time. The majority of the time I like to keep things simple and I do not need to carry one all day.

However I have found that on the occasions where I am either at the observatory or out with other astronomers – having some kind of tool has been extremely beneficial. I decided to get the Leatherman Squirt PS4, which is an extremely small multi-tool, but has some incredibly useful features.

  • Spring action pliers
  • Great scissors
  • Flat and ‘2D’ Philips screwdrivers
  • Very impressive file for the size
  • Small blade

When I first looked at multi-tools, I had considered choosing something from the Leather full-size tools – ranging from the expensive Surge to the cheaper Sidekick. I eventually decided that it was a much better option to go for something that is both high quality, and legal to carry at all times in the UK.

Green Laser

Green Laser

Finally, the last of my every day astronomy tools is the green laser. This particular one is a is a relatively cheap ‘no name’ device which I purchased from eBay. Having a green laser is extremely handy for pointing to things up in the sky, from stars to satellites. And while you can certainly get much more powerful lasers, I only wanted something that would be good enough for astronomy rather than something extremely powerful and potentially dangerous.

  • Bright green laser shows up well
  • Very inexpensive
  • Single AAA battery

One of my favourite things about this particular laser is the fact it uses a single AAA battery. I’ve seen other lasers that range from small watch batteries up to multiple AAAs and beyond. In my opinion this design gives just the right amount of power verses portability, and I would recommend this device to anyone who is looking for an astronomy laser.

It’s worth noting that I also use it with a Duracell rechargeable, so it’s easy to replace when it eventually does go flat.

Astronomy Every Day Carry

Final Thoughts

I feel like I’ve actually ended up with an extremely well rounded every day carry kit for doing astronomy. In fact I was so impressed by the case that came with the M20 Crimson torch that I used it as the base for my whole kit. It’s easy to carry in my pocket or wear on my belt – and I can even use the torch without removing it from the case as shown above.

While I do not carry this stuff with me all the time, it’s always the first thing I pick up when I go out to do astronomy, and I’m sure this equipment will keep me going for years to come.