This week I am in London to attend a conference (the Service Desk and IT Support show – also known as SITS14). We attended this event last year, and it was useful enough to consider coming back again, especially as it is free to attend.

We arrived last night, and checked into the Amsterdam hotel on Trebivor road. It is a small family run hotel, with charming wooden floors and very comfortable beds. On the downside, there is also a lift that struggles to take two people (but apparently will fit 3), and bathrooms that are both tiny and challenging to use. 

Following a quick drink in a local pub, dinner last night was at the Dragon Palace on Earls Court Road. We went there last year, and were looking forward to returning. The food was great, and we ended up staying there quite a while. We talked a fair bit about the direction we want our team and our services to go in the next year. It was a productive conversation, with lots of things to think about.

I generally sleep badly the first night in any new place. Last night was no exception, but I did at least grab a few hours. Breakfast was a very odd continental affair in a strange basement room with wobbly tables. I think we may eat elsewhere tomorrow, although at least the coffee was decent.

We attended 5 sessions today, and took something useful away from each one. I have taken so many notes and a few photographs, and feel like it was a largely worthwhile experience. Today’s sessions covered management, recruitment, BYOD, metrics and customer experience. Tomorrow we attend 5 sessions, which largely focus on social IT and using social media and live chat as part of IT support. Day 2 is more relevant to what we want to achive in the next year, but the programme in general is of sufficient interest to make it worthwhile attending both days.

Getting home during the tube strike is going to be challenging, but thinking about that can wait until tomorrow. Tonight’s challenge is to find somewhere to eat that is as good as the Dragon Palace.

Easter Watchings

20th April – The Matrix – I picked this because I wanted something light to watch on Easter Sunday, and because I spent the holidays ripping old DVDs and wanted to actually watch a few of them too. Ok, It’s not that light, but it is at least in English and has a fairly easy to follow narrative. The Matrix is one of the first films I bought when I got my first DVD player, and I still have a soft spot for the whole series. I’m probably alone in thinking that this is the weakest of the three, but then it’s the only one I didn’t see in the cinema, and this is a series that really benefits from a big screen and the ability to totally immerse. I think I probably need to watch the other two films at some point soon.

21st April – The Matrix Reloaded – See above. It was always my favourite of the three, but doesn’t really work as a stand alone film in the way that the first one does. Some would say that it’s just an extended fight scene with some mystic mumbo-jumbo bolted on, but I think it’s easy to forget that at the time there was nothing else like this. I also think it needs to be watched back to back with part 3, which is exactly what I did.

21st April (later) – The Matrix Revolutions – I remember seeing this in the cinema in 2003 when it came out. I was disappointed at the time, as I didn’t think it really added anything to the story, whilst being even more combat-heavy than Reloaded. Watching it now, I think I appreciate it more, although I do sort of wish that the two films had been edited down into one, because it take a very long time for not a great deal to happen. I’m glad I watched these again, but it might take me another few years before I decide I need them in my life again.

22nd April – Dogville – After a sci-fi overload, I decided to dip into the back catalogue of Lars von Trier again. Dogville was very critically acclaimed when it came out, and is quite innovative, in that it is shot on a very sparse chalk-marked set, in a way that reminds me of the theatre of Brecht (or in fact of small intimate theatres in general). The set gives it an otherworldly quality, but the story and dialogue are quite the opposite, and the juxtaposition of the two really works. I’ll not give too much away about the story itself, because there are a few twists and turns, but suffice to say it kept me entertained from beginning to end. John Hurt’s narrative really adds a lot, and ties the whole story together well, and there are some very strong performances, especially from Nicole Kidman as Grace. Lars von Trier writes strong female characters very well, and this is another good example of a film where the actions of a strong woman are the catalyst for change. The character of Grace features again in von Trier’s Mandalay (albeit played by a different actress), and watching Dogville makes me want to hunt down Mandalay soon. Quentin Tarantino said that had the film been written for the stand then von Trier would have won a Pulitzer prize. I think he might have been right.

23rd April – Frances Ha  – I figured something lighter was in order after watching Dogville, and so I settled on Frances Ha, which was released last year and featured on several “best of” lists. Despite being made and set in the modern day, it was filmed in black and white, which gives it a really timeless feel (although seeing iPhones and modern Macs in a black and white film was a bit odd). It reminds me a lot of 1960’s French cinema, which I don’t think is an accident, and I think the choice to film it in black and white is a good one. The film itself is fairly light, and centres around the life of the eponymous Frances, who is going through most of the things that the average 20-something encounters when life is going quite as planned. No-one dies, the world doesn’t end, but the performances and dialogue are first class, and I think this is something I would both recommend and watch again. (Also, it amused me that the last two films I’ve watched have a David Bowie song playing over the closing credits. Dogville has Young Americans and Frances Ha has Modern Love. I like it when things like that happen).

Easter Project : Setting up a new NAS

My project for this Easter was to set up some sort of storage solution for the vast array of music, films, TV shows and photos I have, and also to organise and catalogue them more effectively.

I asked for a few suggestions on Twitter, and there were a couple I liked the look of. The one that nearly won was the HP micro server, but I eventually settled for a Synology NAS device with a 4TB WD Green hard drive, which I’d read good things about, and which would also stream all my media to my iPad with minimal configuration. I still plan on getting some sort of Linux server at some point, but I think that’s a different project for another day.

Setting up the device was easy. Anyone reading this could do it, and there are plenty of guides on the internet. What was harder was coming up with a sensible way of organising my data, and making sure that I wasn’t just copying the horrifically complicated file structure from my old NAS without rationalising if it was still the best way of doing things.

Sorting the photos was fairly easy, once I’d tracked down where they were all stored. I created a directory, and then made a folder for each event, in a “year – event” format. That way everything will list in vague chronological order and I’ll remember what year things like weddings and holidays happened.

Films and TV shows was trickier, because I wanted to be able to access these more often, and in a way that allowed me to watch them easily. In the end I went with Synology’s default file structure, and made separate directories for films and TV shows. I then put each TV show in a separate folder, and made several folders for the films (by director if there were a lot by the same director, and then catch-all folders for English language films and those with subtitles). Copying the data was an overnight job, but it all went smoothly.

I then explored ways of accessing films and TV shows on other devices. Firstly I downloaded Synology’s iPad app, which is really pretty, and tries to find metadata and cover art for everything. When it works, it works really well, but it failed on a few of my more obscure films (especially the foreign ones), and whilst it played them fine, it gave them incorrect titles, which I think might annoy me in the long term. I also had to specifically point it at folders to index – it wasn’t quite intelligent enough to know where things were on its own.

I then fired up VLC, which I already use for offline playing of films when I’m travelling. It saw the NAS straight away, allowed me to browse the whole device, and pretty much just worked in the way that VLC has always worked for me. I’m not sure why I didn’t try this first, but it’s nice to see that software I’ve been using for 10 years still does the job I need it to do.

I already have all my music backed up in two places, so it wasn’t a huge priority to move it to this device straight away. But seeing as I had the space, I figured making a copy of my iTunes library wouldn’t hurt, so I at least have a snapshot of some of my music on this device. At some point I need to go through my old NAS and make sure there isn’t anything there that I don’t have in iTunes Match, but that is a job for another day.

As well as the music, I made a one-time backup of historical email and files. Both of these usually live in the cloud, but again I thought a local copy wouldn’t hurt.

Talking of backups. I also decided that now I have this new device I can probably afford the space to do Time Machine backups of my two laptops. Both currently back up to an external USB drive, which it reliant on remembering to plug the drive in, and so I am currently setting Time Machine up on both laptops with a view to being able to use the USB drives for something else soon.

I’m really pleased with the new NAS, and it has a lot of features I’ve not explored yet (like being able to run WordPress and Mediawiki and all the things I wanted a Linux server for). It’s taken a day and a half to set up, but the vast majority of that was copying data. The actual setup took minutes, and there was nothing that required being technical, using the command line, or understanding too much about networking.

And I still have half of the Easter break left to do other things, which is an added bonus.

Going Paper Free

I wrote this article for a blog at work, but thought a slightly tweaked version might be of interest to a few people here.

I’ve never been a great fan of printing, so when I was asked to pick a project for the Green Pledge at work I thought a month of not using paper at work would be a good one to go for. The pledge was for the month of November, but I found myself sufficiently weaned off paper that I’ve carried on with it for what is now (at time of writing) over 5 months. I found it fairly easy, although it has been hard at times to get the message across to other people that I didn’t require printed meeting minutes or copies of documents they had already sent me by email.

First off, I don’t think this initiative would have worked anywhere near as well if I didn’t have an iPad. I’ve been using my iPad to take notes at meetings for a while, and from November I stopped carrying a paper notebook completely. On my iPad I have access to my email, internet access if I’m on campus, and I have automated the creation of separate documents for each meeting I attend with an agenda and space to type minutes. This has ensured that I don’t miss action points, and that I have a searchable record of each meeting I attend.

I also think the strategic move to Sharepoint in my workplace has helped. With Sharepoint I can access all my sites and documents using my iPad, and as long as I’ve got an internet connection then I have access to all the information that would normally be printed out and handed around.

But there were some things that were more challenging, and I thought it was worth documenting those challenges and how I tried to overcome them.

1. In order to recruit new staff we have to have various bits of paperwork printed out and signed. This makes sense to me, but I did resent having to complete a document that I knew would be printed out as soon as I submitted it. We’ve got an online eRecruitment tool, and I’m not sure why management and budgetary approvals can’t be handled without paper. There is also another recruitment related issue in that we have to photocopy and sign proof of ID for all candidates. I can do all of this on my iPad, but there is a stated requirement for a paper copy. I’ve not really got a solution for this one, other than to continue to campaign for systems that do not require printing and photocopying to work.

2. We still have printed rotas in our office, which are stuck to the wall each week. I moved these over to Sharepoint early on in the process, but they are still getting printed out as well. I found it really useful being able to access these from anywhere, but I can see why there may still be a need for a paper copy at times.

3. Most people I meet with now know that I don’t require a printed agenda, or minutes of the previous meeting. It took a bit of work to get to this point, but once I explained what I was trying to do (and why) then people were generally fine. However, some people did really not understand why this was a good idea, and/or could not see how it was possible to work without paper. This includes people who have work iPads. As part of this initiative I moved all of our team documentation to Sharepoint, and I now chair and document meetings from my  iPad. At time of writing I’ve not taken paper to a meeting for over 5 months, but unfortunately I have left with the occasional printed document. They have all been either reused by my team, or recycled, but I need to get better at refusing them in the first place.

4. Carrying an internet enabled device with me at all times bought with it a few new challenges. I could check email anywhere, and would also see notifications from Twitter and Facebook when I was in meetings. I largely fixed this with discipline, and also by turning notifications off for anything except work email. I also think that an iPad is much better than a laptop for using in meetings, as the angle an iPad is used at doesn’t present the same physical barrier as a laptop screen does. Also, it’s a lot quieter to type on.

5. I discovered that I spend a fair bit of time in meetings fiddling with my pen. As I don’t carry a pen now, I found myself needing something to do with my hands when I was not typing or talking. Carrying a stylus round helps that, but there is still a lot of temptation to scratch that itch by checking email or Twitter.

I think this was a really worthwhile experiment, and one I plan on continuing with. The only challenge is to come up with something else to do next year.