Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Making video conferencing work better from a home office

By choice I do a lot of video conferencing.  I moved to a remote area and am on two international boards. I felt it was only polite to people on the other end that I should be as visible and audible as possible. I have spent a lot of time tweaking my home office video conferencing setup using simple, good quality kit that can be bought easily.  There's a lot of interest in getting video to work well as the COVID crisis consumes us so I thought I would share my experience. I have made some small updates since first publishing this post.

Set against the time and money cost of travel in the UK the following upgrades were good value - not the cheapest, but reliable good quality work tools.

Improve the lighting - this transforms the way your camera works, avoiding any need to upgrade that. With decent light your face is visible and you look human, rather than having a yellow cast from domestic lighting. A basic photographer's light shining from behind or alongside the screen you are looking at will illuminate your face.  The modern LED lights in the daylight frequency around 6500K are cheap, last long and don’t give off lots of heat.  This light costs £44.99 a tripod costs £19.99. For smaller desks and more portability try this tabletop light at £25.99  Also don’t sit with your back to a window, cameras can't cope with that and your face becomes invisible.

Use a cable to connect your computer to your router instead of wifi. In my experience domestic wifi isn't robust enough for video calling.  Wiring to the router transforms the stability of the call and makes your speech etc more responsive – i.e. it is easier to get into gaps in the conversation and much more natural. Video usually gets much clearer.  You can just unplug the cable after the call and go back on wifi.  Ethernet cables work up to 100m long which should cover UK houses for home workers. This 50m cable costs £9.99. Modern laptops usually need a USB-LAN adapter like this one and you just plug the other end of the cable into the router and turn wifi off on your laptop, which should then default to the cable.  If you have a locked down corporate laptop ask work IT support and accept my sympathies. The vast majority of home routers require no tweaking to do this and their wifi for the rest of your house should continue just fine.

Use a good headset that connects by USB. This transforms your speech clarity, volume and removes much background noise - by the simple fact that the mic is very close to your mouth and designed to pick up close speech.  If you are standing (say to simulate a lecture or presentation) then, again headsets work best because the mic moves with you and stays close to your mouth.  Position the mic just below your mouth to avoid heavy breathing sounds. The best I have tried is the Jabra Evolve 40 – this also has a long lead so you can move around a bit during a long call and a physical mute button. It’s a lightweight set that you forget you are wearing.  The Jabra Evolve 40 costs £64.

Persuade the meeting room end to get a modern speakerphone (and to hardwire their machine in). Then you can hear people from all around the room as the speakerphone has special microphones designed for that and a good speaker to allow you to be heard. Laptop speakers and mics are not designed for 360 or even 180 degree coverage - just for someone sitting close up in front so are rubbish in meeting rooms. This Sennheiser 20 SP ML is very good at £116 and easily portable. The Clearone Chat 160 is brilliant, but more expensive at around £300. Both of these just plug into a lap top USB port and appear as a speaker and mic in conferencing apps, they require no fancy IT skills or support. I do a lot of work with charities and often buy them a speakerphone.

Improve your internet connection if you can.  Video calls work best when there is very little lag – can you easily interject in natural small gaps in the conversation or not? A meaure of your internet connections laggy-ness is your ‘ping speed’ (or RTT - round trip time) which usually shows up in a speed test.  Broadly speaking this is a measure of the time it takes to send something from your machine to 'the internet' and back.  A ping below 20ms helps a lot with video.   Hard wiring to your router should eliminate a lot of lag due to your wifi.  If your ping is high – say >40ms when wired to the router, contact your internet service provider. Other changes to your package are too complicated to go into here (higher download speeds do not necessarily mean lower ping times) but move to fibre if you can, which tends to be more stable. If you have a friend or relative into online gaming they will likely know all about ping speeds which make a big difference to games too.

Get someone to help you with big group calls. If you are talking to 15 or more people, essentially giving a lecture or presentation then get someone in the call with you to act as your helper so you can concentrate on your presenting.  The helper/DJ/producer person should handle anything arising that isn't your presentation/talk and responses to questions. They should know how to turn off the mics of people who have the TV on in the background or are eating crisps, help people who haven't got the tech working (maybe by telephoning them in parallel) and juggle questions from participants in the text chat feature of your a conference service so you only get the ones you need. Allow five minutes at the start advertised as say a 'Technology Overture' to get everyone set up. Then you can start talking with fewer kit-based interruptions from the audience. 

Use a better video conference service. I use Zoom daily, it is excellent, you just turn it on and it works. It remains to be seen how well it works as the company grows and its network becomes loaded. Zoom is good because it doesn't require the other party to have an account, if you have one.  I also like CiscoWebex a more corporate product that I use with an Australian board and it is excellent – eerily so given the distances. Skype does ok but the interface drives me mad. Google hangouts is great when it works, but always seems quite buggy.

Which of the above you might select depends on the problem you have really.  If video conferencing works really badly for you in a home office - lagging, poor quality etc then first of all try using a cable back to the router, check the ping speed of your internet connection and switch to Zoom. But also check that the problem isn't with your video partner.

If it all works ok but the picture and sound make it all feel a bit of a trial and you wish the call would just end then improve the lighting, headphones and mic. The better the picture and sound, the longer I can endure a call.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Chrissie Osborne RIP

Our wonderful mother Chrissie finally lost her 23 year fight with cancer at the weekend peacefully and free of pain in her beloved Northampton General Hospital (18 March 2017). She was a strong, intense, funny, hilarious, kind, caring, passionate, fierce, outraged and outrageous person. Often all within the same breath.
Everyone knew her as a different person, we her sons and sister knew all of them.
The stories are legion – volunteering at a hospice for ten years, at the hospital for 21, the first female judge in the Royal National Rose Society, the only farmer in Northamptonshire who routinely harvested in a bikini, being sent off from a school rugby match for abusing the referee (in the 1980s before it was fashionable), surfing down the stairs at 10 Downing Street, being crowned, for heavens sake Miss Sexy Voice of Northamptonshire by the local radio station, her brilliant Scottish Country dancing, exceptional rose growing, opening a supermarket, knitting clothing to keep the chickens warm, dogged support of Northampton Saints particularly Steven Myler, abseiling in her sixties for charity, her dedicated fly fishing, buying a herd of Belted Galloways on a whim and any number of outrageous exploits in shoots, pubs and clubs the length and breadth of the country.
Mother would bring immense compassion and humour to any encounter, lighting up the room with a wonderful sense of the absurd and an instinctive empathy.  So many people talk of the joy she brought to them. But she could also fight – she fought anything: her school, from which she was removed just before she was expelled (as she told it), the council for CPO-ing her first shop, the male hegemony that insisted she couldn’t and wouldn’t farm after our father’s tragic early death, on Women’s Hour the agrochemical industry that probably gave her cancer, the government who threatened her rural way of life, motorists on the A43, sometimes us and herself.  As I go through her papers and the press cuttings tumble out, I can see remarkably that she won many of these battles in some way or other. I learned from her to be afraid of no one and will pass to my daughters evidence of their grandmother’s campaigns.
When she was given the terminal diagnosis by her consultant –the cancer had moved to her liver by then – she said that she had better have a gin and tonic. The doc was happy with alcohol, so she did and as she had stopped eating by that point she spent the last few days subsisting in hospital on lager, that she drank through a straw.
The three pictures here cover many bases – immensely beautiful at the marriage to my father, immensely kind receiving a 10 year volunteering award and immense fun, launching the ‘Mini Metro’ having driven it through a wall at the dealers then drinking champagne in the boot (mother, centre).
The world is a much poorer, quieter place without her. Oli and I lost our father tragically early, but we had double the mother.

Chrissie Osborne formerly known as Chrissie Perrin and Christine Marriott's funeral will take place on Monday 3 April 2017 at St Botoloph's, Church Brampton with a reception afterwards.  We would welcome all whose lives she touched to join us.

William Perrin
Oliver Perrin
Vicki Marriott

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Cycling in London's air

It was towards the end of the consultation for my long running chest problems that my GP pointed at my cycling helmet and asked 'Do you cycle much here in London?', 'Yes' I said, 'For about 20 years now.'  'Well' he replied 'Do you think there might be any connection between that and the asthma diagnosis we have just reached?'

I was pretty aghast - cycling has been part of my life for so long now, since a Bob Crow tube strike on the district line one summer started me riding in from Richmond - that it was almost out of set for me as a possible cause of illness.  I suddenly felt a bit like a smoker sitting in the surgery complaining about their cough while taking a drag. My GP went on say that he couldn't establish a direct causal link but it was worth factoring in.  I had acute asthma as a child, but grew out of it at puberty as one tends to do and it didn't manifest like this - a cough and subtly lower energy levels.  I wore a mask when I started in the 1990 s (an early Respro I think) but like most people gave it up after a while.

So now I am on a Clenil brown inhaler and the difference is colossal.  My benchmark daily ride on a 30kg Nihola with an increasingly heavy 3yo uphill for three miles is now maybe 30% easier than before, in a higher gear and not out of breath.  This and other radically improved benchmark rides I can practically do in my sleep suggest the asthma has been around for many years.  There is also a sudden return in energy, the lack of which I had put down to parental lack of sleep and age.  Of course it could be the mild steroids in the inhaler but I am some way short of Lance Armstrong levels.

The joys of London air.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Can #floodhack help people work together to prevent future floods? (repost)

Here’s an idea for today’s #floodhack that would help people organise to prevent future floods by lobbying the people whose actions have led to the flooding: create a web service that allows people in low lying, flood risk areas find and lobby the people on higher ground who need to change their land use patterns to stop water rushing into rivers and creating floods. This is something that government data and modern web tools can easily achieve.
At the heart of flooding is a simple, powerful micro-economic problem: the people who are farming or building on upland areas in a rapidly-draining way causing a flood problem downstream don’t bear the economic costs of their actions.   Indeed in many cases have no idea that they are part of the problem. Therefore there is no hope whatsoever of a ‘market’ solution unless this is somehow corrected – both information about what they are doing and internalising the costs to their production decision.
Here’s how it might work, ultra-simplistically.   You enter your post code and are presented with a map of the drainage basin that might affect your flooding risk.  The areas of the basin that have the wrong type of vegetation or ground use are coloured red.  Areas that are controlled, built or in most cases farmed by one operator are singled out.  You can then click to organise a group of people to meet up in that area or protest to the person/company or petition them or similar to change their land use practices. To help that person change you are given a play list of appropriate land use practices – eg plant trees instead of wheat, for instance and government support schemes to incentivise this.  The service also records who is campaigning who to prevent overlap.  And also networks together everyone who is campaigning in that drainage basin.
The aim is very much to allow people who are doing the wrong thing, even inadvertently, to meet with people this is affecting and start to feel the human impact of their actions.  And then start to push them through behaviour change.  Of course there are lots of holes in this, but the basic capability to answer the question ‘whose behaviour do we have to change to prevent flooding long term’ is invaluable however it is applied. Why not let a hack day loose on it instead of some turgid Rural Payment Agency/Environment Agency process)
What data sets would you need?
drainage basins (EA, Geological Survey and many hydrology academics)
rivers (not open as far as I know)
land ownership and leasing (land registry)
who farms which bit of land (Rural Payments Agency has this – different to who owns it)
agricultural incentive schemes (RPA again and related to people who farm which bit above)
house building and drainage rule sets/incentives (CLG – de-regulating planning and building regulations won’t help)
and you could plug in some simple organising tools like meetup or the pledgebank engine or any of the petitioning tools
Why would i suggest a tool like this?  In order to tackle long term flooding problems major changes to land use will have to come about in the catchment areas that run-off too quickly due to house building or the ‘wrong’ sort of farming.  The governance of Britain for hundreds of years has been dominated by land owners, particularly in the House of Lords. Governments historically have been poor at influencing landowners unless they pay them huge amounts of money in cumbersome and much mocked agricultural support schemes. In austerity times, there aren’t huge amounts of money and the current government is inimicable towards the CAP, with little negotiating credit in Europe.  So i am pessimistic about this or any future government’s ability to drive affordable change up on the slippery slopes of drainage basins.
The government might crack this in the end, but the vested interest lobbies are horrible and the government’s tool set and indeed I dare say their own knowledge of who to act against, is weak.
So why not short circuit the government a bit and allow people who are at risk of flooding to organise themselves and campaign direct at the people whose practices are exacerbating the flooding?

(reposted from which was having problems with it's mobile theme today)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Keogh report and accountability - cut through the crap give citizens rights to enforce against the government in court

Today’s Keogh report into avoidable deaths and mis management on a huge scale in the health system was awful.  The partisan debate in the House was particularly unedifying even by the low standards of Westminster.  But there’s something weirdly British about the situation.  The public seem almost helpless in the face of institutional and political failure.  The way the British system works citizens (more correctly ‘subjects’) lack support from the third leg of the stool in an advanced democracy – the courts, independent of the party system.

We don’t seem to have rights in law to enforce against government that let us down.  In this particular case bureaucratic failure led to deaths – the most extreme form of institutional failure.  There is notionally the corporate manslaughter and corporate homicide act 2007 that cuts through the old concept of crown immunity, allowing NHS bodies to be prosecuted.  But for arcane legal reasons the act itself doesn’t work – lawyers still struggle with identifying who was responsible within a large organisation – they have only made one case stick so far against a small business.  

An effective CMCHA could be a powerful weapon cutting across a lot of the crap talked about accountability.  The CMCHA is usually seen alongside the much lampooned Health and Safety legislation – and that too could be beefed up.  The reams of management legislation around public services could also give a limited number of rights in law to the citizen/subject/customer to enforce in the courts against the state.  Most recently, the weakening of judicial review, itself never quite the fierce beast it was talked up to be goes in the opposite direction.

A group of us in London's Kings Cross have sought action against TfL for failing to act  in a timely or effective fashion when in receipt of warnings about a dangerous junction, at which a person later died. We have gone down the corporate manslaughter route, but people keep telling us that we are wasting our time.

There’s a challenge here for all parties as they think about their 2015 manifestos – are they serious about standing up for citizens? Then give people the rights one should expect in an advanced democracy and allow them to seek redress through the courts when public bodies or corporations kill people.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Fulton Report 1968 Cmnd. 3638 'The Civil Service' full copy of main report

The Fulton Report is often referred to as the seminal report into the civil service, even over 40 years on.  Yet it is hard to find a copy online.  While a civil servant myself I asked a favour of a colleague at the National Archives and they scanned a copy in for me.You can find that copy of the Fulton Report 1968 into the Civil Service here as a PDF graphic.

The report is Crown Copyright under the Open Government Licence which is essentially a permissive licence you can do anything you want with.  It's an optical scan of reasonable if not the highest quality - if someone could try and OCR it to provide a free text search that would be great - let me know if you do it and I can link from here.

UPDATE - rather wonderfully @davebriggs has OCRed the report so we can now offer a searchable version of the Fulton Report into the Civil Service 1968.   Subject to the usual E&OE of OCR.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

TV remote controls - a salutary lesson in the need to adopt open standards

Today we learn of the death of Eugen Polley inventor of the TV remote control.  Remotes are integral to modern TV watching and the production of hundreds of millions, probably billions of them is an indicator of success.  But these huge numbers conceal an equally huge missed opportunity to deliver better products for people through co-operation and open standards.

The reality is that most TV remotes are awful things, lacking in ergonomics and designed at the fag end of the production process.  To manage all the audio visual devices around the TV most people have to have several remotes all of which use different symbols and have dozens of unused buttons.  It's hugely wasteful and detracts from the experience of using the wonderful technologies that the remotes control.  Eugen Polley's wonderful idea has mutated like an alien swarm and taken over our couches and living rooms across the world because the manufacturers didn't co-operate and agree basic open standards and principles on how remotes work.  This compatibility problem often exists within a manufacturers own product ranges.

The aftermarket  (what you can buy once you have bought your TV set) for TV and audio visual remotes is dominated by poor universal remotes that heroically attempt to back-fill the gulf created by the lack of compatibility. I've had many of these universal remotes over the years, they require hours of persistence to get working across all your devices.  This isn't usually the fault of the universal remote manufacturers, more that they have to work with a baffling array of commands and quirks across devices.  Patenting, fierce IP protection,  competition and an inate unwillingness to co-operate have led to to this awful mess in which the consumer loses out.

I love TV technology and enthusiastically adopt the latest kit. Imagine an aftermarket of remotes where you can buy functional, beautiful even remotes that just work out of the box.  You only need one to manage all the stuff in your living room and when you buy something new it works with that too.  Where remote manufacturers can invest in the aesthetics and customisation of the device itself, rather than in maintaining a huge database of commands that has to be updated from the Internet.  This could once have been made possible by the agreement and adoption of open standards for how TV remotes work.  Now it's probably so late that this can't be done.

Elsewhere in the internet world the open standards community often has trouble getting across to regular folk and policy makers why open standards are important. Remote controls are a salutary lesson on the mess that can emerge if you put competing standards ahead of co-operation.

Polite, on topic comments welcome.