Category Archives: technology

Home working and technological expectations

Like many others, I am working from home now. The actual process of working is fine, but the assumptions made by my employer and probably by employers in general about the facilities we have, are, I will argue, unrealistic. It follows that their expectations are unrealistic too.

Because I live close to my office, I have never felt the need to have broadband in my flat. It has been an attempt to have some kind of work-life balance – I know if I did have this, I would be working most of the time. This has been successful, and if I really need to do something work-related in the evening or weekend, I go to my office.

The situation now is that we are expected to be able to do anything internet related from home, as my building and most campus buildings are out of bounds. I can use my mobile phone as a WiFi hub, and that is fine for low bandwidth tasks, like uploading lecture slides etc. But it’s unlikely to be able to cope with online vivas and interviews (using e.g. Skype or Google Meet), which we are also expected to be able to do. I have asked my line manager to contact IT services about this, and I have separately contacted them myself, but so far there has been no response. My School Education Committee suggested using a WiFi dongle, but my experience of these in the past has been mixed. I have ordered one (they offered to pay for it, so fair enough); delivery is going to take some time, it would seem.

Even when people have broadband, there are undoubted security issues in working from home, especially if one is handling confidential items like exam papers. At least now we can install VPNs without having to beg IT services, which is a step in the right direction. But our employer is still making the assumption that we have these facilities, which of course we are paying for! And I was amused at an email from senior management that warned about security issues – they can’t have it both ways.

Anyway, we will see how it goes. Going forward, I can only see things getting worse. As we approach exams season, there will be even more demands and expectations. My hope is that the whole process will be learning experience for employers. Only time will tell.

Are third party alternatives to Facebook apps on Android worth considering?

As someone who uses Facebook a lot, both for social reasons but also as an administrator of 5 Facebook pages and 2 Facebook groups (and counting !), having access to Facebook on my smartphone is essential. When Facebook decided to make it necessary to install the Messenger app separately, I started looking at the considerable memory real estate these apps occupy.

I currently have a Sony Xperia Z3, which has 16 Gb memory in the device, and which I have expanded with a 32 Gb SD card. However, as Android users will be aware, not all apps will run on the card, meaning that the 16 Gb can potentially get filled quickly.

The first thing I tried was to replace the Messenger app (109 Mb) by a less memory intensive third party app. After some research, I installed Trillian which occupies considerably less memory, and initially seemed to be fine. It can be configured for other messenging services, like Google Hangouts, but since Hangouts is a permanent fixture on my phone, I didn’t configure Trillian to replace it. The only minor irritation with Trillian is that it is advertisement supported, (the pro version is subscription based rather than a one-off payment). I also found that sometimes one can’t send a message to an offline user, which I do need to do quite often.

I then took the bold step of uninstalling the Facebook app (256 Mb) and replacing it by the third party app Fast for Android. It certainly takes up less memory, and can do most of the things the native app can do. But there are things it struggles with, like adding a comment to a photo being uploaded to Facebook. Also, it’s really a front end to the mobile Facebook web site, and I often found myself having to go there to complete some tasks.

Trillian and Fast certainly saved memory, and both resided on the SD card without complaint. But after a while (a month or so), I began to get irritated by the things they couldn’t do! I went back to the native Facebook app first, and about a week ago, relented and reinstalled Messenger. I have found that the Facebook app will go on the SD card, but (annoyingly) Messenger doesn’t work well unless it is installed in the main phone memory.

My conclusion is, if you are a heavy mobile user of Facebook, and need to use the messenging service, there is no substitute for the native apps. Let’s hope that future smartphones are built with more memory on the device, as this was one of the reasons I tried the alternatives!

Lectures: to capture or not capture?

My colleague Katherine Haxton has recently published an interesting post on the recording of lectures. This has led me to think about what I do, whether it is working, and whether I could do more. Thinking about this now is well timed, since we resume teaching tomorrow, after our Autumn Semester exam period finished on Friday.

I have been recording the audio component of my lectures for four years now. My thinking has been that, with having the audio and the lecture slides, the students can (if they wish) reproduce most of what happened in the lecture to help their revision. No, it’s not the kind of full capture that Katherine does, and yes, any work done on the whiteboard is missed. But since I don’t tend to use selective release (i.e. I make the recordings available to all, regardless of attendance), there has to be some benefit for actually attending, and I haven’t (so far) worried too much about the part of the lecture that will be missed by those who are absent. After all, it’s still possible to borrow notes!

I haven’t done extensive research into how much the recordings are accessed – the information is there on Blackboard, and I must make an effort to look at it. But judging from comments on module questionnaires, and informal feedback, the recordings are appreciated.

Could I/should I do more? I have recently bought a Microsoft Surface tablet, and could (in principle) use that in my lectures, so that any examples, etc. are captured, by writing on its screen instead of the whiteboard. I am considering doing that, although there are some annoying minor technical issues to be overcome first, like getting an adaptor cable to connect the tablet to the data projector! On the other hand, my more mathematical examples are easier to explain with the extra space of the whiteboard (always assuming the room I’m in has one, which is by no means guaranteed!) I do make screencasts, usually on topics which require more detailed explanation, and there I use Camtasia, which works well. But it is time consuming, as Katherine says.

So, for now, I will continue what I’ve been doing. If my university decides to invest in lecture capture facilities, it will be interesting to see what route/procedure they follow. If anyone has experience of this kind of ‘centralised lecture capture’, it would be interesting to hear of their experiences, whether good or bad!

Mobile computing technology usage – early 2015 update

This is an update on my usage of mobile computing technology as of January 2015.

During 2014 I came to the conclusion that, good as they are, Android tablets won’t ‘cut the mustard’ for power users like myself, at least as far as using Microsoft software is concerned. There are plenty of good MS Office emulation packages out there, including QuickOffice and Documents to Go, all of which I have used extensively, but they can’t (and are unlikely to be ever able to) cope with documents and presentations involving more than just words (e.g. equations, Greek characters etc.). So I looked at Microsoft tablets, and I’m now using a Surface Pro 3, which does everything I need, including running the full version of Microsoft Office. This means I won’t be in the situation, as I was in in July 2014, where I had to produce an exam paper including equations while at a conference, but couldn’t, because the Android emulation software on my tablet couldn’t cope!

All this is not to say I have stopped using the Android platform. I still have my Nexus 7 tablet, now running Android 5.0 (Lollypop), which I take to meetings and use to take notes and keep up with e-mail etc. And I have just upgraded my smartphone, from my faithful and long-serving 2 year old Samsung Galaxy S3 to a Sony Xperia Z3. It has more power, so I don’t have to ration my app usage, the battery is better, and it currently runs Android 4.4.4 (KitKat), with a likely upgrade to Lollypop later in the year. It can also receive 4G, although how long before we have access to 4G in my locality remains to be seen!

Android phones and tablets: capabilities, limitations and upgrades

The devices that keep me connected, organised and productive when I’m out of the office are almost entirely Android in flavour. I currently use an Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone (overdue an upgrade, but more on that later) and a Google Nexus 7 tablet. My S3 will be 2 years old in January, and the Nexus is coming up to a year old. Until recently I had some apps on both devices, although with the Nexus having a larger screen, it is obviously better suited to some apps than the phone is. Recently my S3 dramatically slowed, so I reset it, and this time only installed communication and social media apps on it. It seems to run better now, with about 1Gb of space being used currently. The Nexus is taking the strain, with news/weather/travel apps residing there instead, as well as what office software is available.

Of course there is a downside to this, since the Nexus is WiFi only, and you will know from my previous posts that this is an issue where I live. But phone reception isn’t that good either (only GPRS at home). Hopefully this will improve, and my trips to the local bus stop to get a good signal will become a thing of the past!

Regarding upgrades, the S3 is non-4G compatible, and stuck on Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean) with no prospect of an upgrade to 4.4, let alone 5.0! My service provider, O2, doesn’t currently provide 4G in my area, but I’ve been impressed when I’ve seen it working on my wife’s phone on visits to London, and it will arrive soon I hope! This makes an upgrade almost inevitable, and my 4 reasons for upgrading are (i) the age of the phone, (ii) its poor battery life, (iii) the lack of 4G, and (iv) the Android system. Currently I’m looking at the Sony Xperia Z3, which seems impressive, and which should tick all the boxes. But I will wait until January; there’s some satisfaction in being able to use a smartphone intensively for 2 years!

My Nexus is still fine, and an OS upgrade to Android 5.0 (Lollypop) is due any day now. I’m sure it will continue to serve me well, including as my main device for blogging!

The main limitation of these devices for me, outside that which is a result of poor WiFi/phone data reception, is the lack of proper Microsoft Office compatible software. I wrote about this in the summer, when I found myself at a conference unable to create Office documents containing anything other than simple text. Having no confidence that a sufficiently powerful Android app will ever be available, I recently invested in a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet as an upgrade for my 4.5 year old (and increasingly creaking) Samsung Netbook. Having this will ensure that I can always create and edit complex Office documents, as well as adding new functionality like being able to annotate lecture notes. Plus it is an amazing piece of kit! Expect more on this in a later post.

So in conclusion, my mobile computing future is likely to remain mainly Android based, but with the Microsoft tablet taking the strain for Office intensive tasks, like writing research papers and examination scripts.

Using a smartphone with O2 in Europe – update

On my recent trip to Greece, I tried out O2’s £1.66 daily European data allowance. I’m pleased to report that it ‘did what it says on the tin’, and I was able to keep using my phone for social media and photo uploading throughout the trip without any problems. I used WiFi when possible (but as mentioned in my last post, this was restricted to my hotel in Greece). But it’s good to know that the cost of using a smartphone, at least in Europe, is now reasonable. Last year I found I had to keep topping up, but the £1.66 charge now covers a full day.

So I’m pleased to sing the praises of O2 on this occasion! Of course there is still an issue with travelling outside Europe, and there it may still be best to use an international SIM card, as I did on my last visit to the USA.

UK Airports and Airport hotels: deficiencies in amenities

I was prompted to write this post having just returned from a holiday in Greece which included staying in an airport hotel at London Gatwick (twice) and spending some considerable time in 2 airports (the other being Thessaloniki).

The first point I wanted to make is on the familiar theme of WiFi provision. I regard WiFi as essential whether my trip is for business or pleasure. Unfortunately many hotels, including those at airports, don’t seem to agree with this! At the very conveniently located Hilton in Gatwick South Terminal there is WiFi, but unless you’re a silver or gold HHonors member, it’s charged for. Some Hilton hotels have free WiFi in their lobby areas, but not so here! Added to that is the ‘Faraday Cage’ effect of most modern hotels, which neatly blocks most phone data signals (or at least severely attenuates them). So  effectively there’s little connectivity in the hotel unless you pay (and the WiFi signal didn’t seem particularly strong anyway).

Once in the airport, the only WiFi I could find was in the business lounges. OK, it was free, but you pay to go into the lounge! At least there was a good phone data signal in the airport (HSDPA or 3G, and presumably 4G, although my SG3 doesn’t receive 4G).

Arriving in Greece there was a good phone data signal in Thessaloniki airport, but no accessible WiFi that I could find. And during the coach journey down the motorway to the hotel, the phone data signal was consistently strong (unlike most UK motorways, for example). At the hotel there was free WiFi which worked well most of the time, so I have no complaints there. The impressive part of it was the router on the beach (see me using it below)!

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Turning to amenities in general, a final and related point is about the opening hours of shops, restaurants and bars at airports and airport hotels in the UK. I arrived back at Gatwick at just after midnight on Monday night/Tuesday morning. Nothing was open at the airport, and by the time we had finally made it to the hotel, nothing was open there either. So there was no chance of a restorative drink or snack to make up for BA’s apology for in-flight catering! If airports are going to make money from late arriving flights, shouldn’t they provide facilities for the passengers, as happens for example at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam? Or should I just accept it as a consequence of UK narrow mindedness?

Connecting a USB memory stick/drive to a Nexus 7 tablet

Following my post of the end of last week about using a tablet instead of a laptop at a conference, another unforeseen issue I encountered was how to read a USB memory stick using the tablet. The conference provided all the information on a memory stick, but I couldn’t read it with the Nexus! (It didn’t matter on this occasion because I was able to access the information online, but this might not always be the case.)

So, after a bit of quick research online, I found the solution, which was to purchase a cable which connects the Nexus’s micro USB port to a USB adaptor which you can plug a memory stick into. You can find these on sale online for less than £10 (UK). You then need to install a good file reading app, like Total Commander, from the Google Play store, and download the USB plugin (free for a 30 day trial but then very cheap). It works perfectly, and also provides a sneaky way of expanding the Nexus’s memory!

Tablet shortcomings, or should I keep taking the tablet?

About a year ago I posted about taking a tablet on a research trip to Vienna in place of a laptop. I was pretty positive about the overall experience. At the time I was using a budget Coby Kyros tablet, but it managed to do almost everything I needed it to do. Since then I have replaced the Coby with a Nexus 7, and although I have taken it on some short trips, the conference I have just attended in Canterbury was the first proper test of its capabilities as a laptop replacement. How did it do? Well, the WiFi at the University of Kent was uniformly excellent, so there were none of the connectivity issues I sometimes experience. It was great for email and for reading most attachments, but I made an interesting discovery about reading and writing word documents. I have QuickOffice and Documents to Go installed, but neither were capable of reading, let alone editing and preparing, a document containing Greek letters, equations and symbols. Microsoft Office for Android still hasn’t been released for tablets (although it may appear later this year, apparently). Now, normally this wouldn’t matter, but while I was at the conference I had a couple of requests for resit exam questions. I devised some questions, and then set about trying to type them up. At that point I realised it couldn’t be done with the software installed, and I had to send apologies with a promise to get them done on my return (so a job for tomorrow). I did investigate one work round app, called CloudOn, which seemed to make reading the documents possible (a start) but it’s not available offline, which basically makes it pretty useless to me. So just now I’m wondering if I might have to go back to taking a laptop with me on trips longer than a couple of days. This could be an excuse for an upgrade (and there are some impressive lightweight options available), since my current 4 year old netbook is getting a bit flaky. This needs careful consideration, but I am a bit disappointed that the tablet couldn’t deliver in this respect, at least not yet.

Charged devices and air travel

We have learned in the last few days that passengers boarding US-bound flights from Heathrow and Manchester (and presumably other airports) will have to show that their electronic devices are charged before being allowed to board. This policy sounds simple and possibly even sensible, but it has the potential of causing serious problems to ‘power users’ who may have spent several hours before their flights working, with the result that their device(s) may be low on power by then.

For example, these days I travel with a smartphone and either a tablet or laptop. The tablet (a Nexus 7) has an impressive battery life, but the phone and laptop do not! My phone, a Samsung Galaxy S3,  typically only lasts 8 hours or so between charges, so I carry a spare battery and an external charger. Supposing I have a 12:00 flight from Heathrow to the US, my phone will have been in use for at least 5 hours prior to departure. When the battery gets low I either change it or plug in the charger, but neither of these activities are particularly compatible with going through immigration! And quite what the reaction would be if I opened up my phone to change the battery on a flight does not bear thinking about! So I am very concerned about these developments,  which will no doubt be rolled out to all flights and destinations soon. It will make things difficult for those of us who need to use our electronic devices before, during and after travelling. We’ll see how it affects my next trip.