Sunday, March 30, 2014

Getting The Most Out Of Your Organisations Help desk/ Service Desk

This is intended to be a short article on "Getting The Most Out Of Your Service Desk". It's intended for end-users as a not-entirely-too-serious guide to making your companies service desk work for you. This first section is for when you've got an issue;
  • Tell us! We can't fix every single issue everyone raises but we can guarantee that we will fix 0% of the issues no-one raises. Most Help Desks have a knowledge base somewhere attached to them, if anyone has *ever* had your issue before then a solution could be just a click away.
  • What's up? Report the problem in enough detail for the person at the other end of the line to understand what you are doing and what bit of it isn't working as you'd expect. Try not to use the phrase "it's not working" - we actually know that, it's not a social call - what we need to know is specifically what isn't working. It's the difference between reporting "I can't send email" and "When I try and check for email in Outlook I get the error 'cannot connect to xxxx'".
  • How important is this? It might come as a surprise to you but your IT Department doesn't know your job as well as you do (despite what some of them may think). Reporting the issue "My modems not working" will be treated a lot less seriously than "The modem we use to send purchase orders to our suppliers is not working and we have a 100k order we desperately need to send".
  • How many people are affected? If you're reporting a problem that's just affecting you then fine, but if you are reporting a problem on behalf of your team/ floor/ building/ etc. then it's vitally important you say so. When combined with the information you've given above it will be used to determine how important the call is depending on whatever else the help desk is dealing with at the time.
  • Be honest! When asked what you were doing when whatever it was happened don't say "nothing". It's not an accusation, we're not trying to catch you out, we're just trying to fix the problem and it's a whole lot easier if we understand how it broke in the first place. For example we had a report of "My laptop has stopped working" from a remote worker and after trying lots of different things we couriered them a new one and picked the old one up. It arrived back in the office with a clear car tyre track on it. Everyone is human, accidents happen, but nothing puts peoples backs up like spending 30 minutes trying to track down a problem with a laptop with someone who knows exactly what is up with it and just doesn't want to admit it.
  • Use the facilities. If your help desk has a self service option then please use it and resist the temptation to "just give them a call". Equally if it's not urgent then maybe you can report something via email rather than getting on the phone.
  • Solved it yourself? Then close the call (drop help desk an email), nothing is more frustrating than calling someone to let me know you're looking at the problem just to be told that it doesn't matter any more as they've solved it.
  • We fixed it? Thank us. Seriously. An email to a Help desk manager saying that you'd like to thank X for dealing so professionally with your issue goes down very well. Reward good service, some day you may need a really big favour and being seen as a "good customer" could be the clincher as to whether or not you get it.
  • Lack of a Solution is not always Lack of Progress! Be tolerant, some problems can prove to be unexpectedly complex or have a solution that requires non-IT things (like budgets) that can't be done quickly. So long as you are being kept informed and feel the issue is progressing don't feel you have to escalate something just because a deadline has passed (there are other reasons to escalate, but don't think there is an artificial timetable).
So that's the first stage, if you follow all those steps (other than running over your laptop with a car) then your IT department will love you - well as much as an anonymous voice down the end of the phone can! Now here's the "what's in it for you" bit;
  • Always ask for when they will get back to you. Always. There is a huge temptation if you are living and dying by your help desk metrics to "get people off the phone as quickly as possible". As soon as the call is logged you can get the priority and this will tell you when they should get back to you.
  • Chase calls that are important. Don't be afraid to chase calls, given that you know when someone should have got back to you (see above) if no-one has contacted you and you are still experiencing the issue let Help desk know. 
  • If a call has dragged on for quite some time don't be afraid to ask for it to be escalated! You can escalate a call in two ways; you can call the help desk and ask for it to be escalated, or you can ask your immediate manager to call and chase the call. Both should work equally well.
And that's it. Make sense? No? Yes?

Minecraft: Quick Mining Solution For Sand/Gravel

Sand, like gravel, is subject to gravity so if you remove the blocks under it it will fall. 

There's a fairly simple trick; if you place a torch so that the sand/gravel falls into it then it will turn straight into the resource (without you having to mine it). 

Here's a quick example from YouTube;

Slight departure from normal, but lots of fun ;-)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Google Chromecast - Several Weeks In

The first thing to say is that I'm an Apple TV owner. I've had it since version 1, have a tonne of iTunes content in the cloud, and am generally speaking very happy with it. I thought I'd give the Google alternative a go because before I was an "Apple guy" I was a "Google guy" and despite all the apple stuff I've got I'd happy go back to Google in a flash if they could make products that were as good (for me, I recognise that this is very subjective!) as the Apple Alternatives.

The unboxing experience is pretty good. Basically in the box is the device, a power block and a USB lead. In my case the power supply was American, but to be honest I've got plenty of powered USB ports around the TV so this wasn't a problem.

I plugged in and had the whole thing setup connecting to my wireless network in about 5 minutes. I was able to start streaming one of the Doctor Who episodes I'd purchased via the Play Movies app on my iPhone pretty immediately. Using my iPhone as a remote control seemed to work very well, and (unlike Apple's AirPlay) as rather than streaming from my iPhone to the Chromecast it makes it's own connection to the

One thing I'm hoping not to do is compare the Chromecast to the AppleTV they're very different pieces of technology. In essence all the Chromecast is is an online video player, that's enough for a lot of people but the AppleTV does more.

So I've been using it for a few weeks and here's my main comments;

  • I miss having a remote. I've got young children who should go to sleep around 8, but tend to come down into the lounge around 8:30 - just in time to catch things in Walking Dead I'd prefer them not to see. The problem is that my WiFi connection on my phone has shutdown so when I pick it up to hit "pause" it has to connect to WiFi and then find the Chromecast and then work out it's playing a video so the "pause" button is enabled and then, after I've pressed it, pause the live video. This doesn't always work - in fact it rarely works. In fact I've learnt that the only way to ensure it connects properly is to shutdown the app and re-open it - hardly ideal
  • Google Play is cheaper than iTunes. Mostly. Frankly it's good to have an alternative, but the one thing I did find frustrating is pricing not defaulting to High Definition (HD). It's very frustrating that when I see something at £9.99 I have to click on it to see the HD price. Even more frustrating is if it's showing £3.49 which turns out to be the rental price! There just doesn't seem to be any consistency, some items don't appear to have a price until you click on them. I find this frustrating. £1.99 for a classic album though - can't beat that!
  • Virgin Media is my ISP, I have fibre broadband, the HD content is crisp and clear. However there's just the small part of me that can't get used to not knowing what HD I'm watching. Is it 1080p or 720p? I have no way of knowing. None. When I buy an iTunes download I can see it's 1080p. I saved £2 buying on Google Play but have I still got 1080p? Who knows*
  • YouTube private video's don't play. This is quite odd. I can play Netflix so why not YouTube private videos? Clearly there is some kind of authentication handover for Netflix so why haven't Google done the same with YouTube?
  • The "Beta" Chrome plugin for screen/ tab sharing doesn't work. Doesn't work at all. I've tried multiple chromecasts and multiple networks - no joy. Fix it
  • I've had a few errors both on the iPhone and actually on the Chromecast itself. Sometimes I've had to shutdown the app and restart it, sometimes I've had to unplug the power from the Chromecast to get it working again. Consumer devices don't do this. Not the good ones anyway
  • £30 is an absolute bargin
*- Yes. I know. The obvious point is that if I can't tell the difference what's the point in complaining? Fair point.

And here's what I'd like to see in Version 2;
  • IR receiver. I'd like to use a remote. My existing remote works for the AppleTV and works well, I'd like to use it for Chromecast but there wouldn't be any point unless ...
  • Apps on Chromecast. iPlayer, Netflix, Play, etc. I'd like these as Apps so (when combined with a remote) I don't have to play around with my iPhone/iPad to get things to play 
  • I'd like to be able to prevent other people interrupting my movie by just choosing to play from their device to Chromecast (usually accidentally). This is more of an issue when I'm using the Chromecast at work where it's on the public wireless, along with the Apple TV's, than it is at home but I'd still like this recognised by Google as being a real problem
Carrying on the "improvements to play" theme;
  • 1080p HD as the *default* for downloads and for pricing. If it's not in 1080p then differentiate it somehow
  • Bundles. There are some really good bundles on iTunes, both movies and TV shows. Lets get some on play!
  • Fix the interface. It's terrible. Terrible. Not just on one device but on all devices. Play Music on my iPhone is a mess - the person who decided that what I really wanted to do when I open it is see my music presented to me in a random order with randomly generated playlists inserted into it. I mean in what way was this a good idea?
  • Seriously with the interface. Fix it.
In summary though it's a pretty good device. It has a few niggles but it's only version 1 and it's pretty cheap so it's quite easy to forgive it's imperfections. If you're an Android user should you get one? Definitely. You'd be absolutely mad not too. If you're an iPhone user then it's not quite as clear cut, but I'd still recommend it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Creating Embedded Email Links Within Office Documents (Word, Powerpoint, Excel, etc)

We have a new requirement from our users. Basically what they want to do is send a document out to a number of people, have them read it, and then (on the final page) click on a link that will automatically generate an email to a set email address within the company basically saying "I have read and understood this document".

It's actually a pretty simple requirement but something I think is worth documenting just in case it comes up again.

In order to go through this step-by-step I'm going to use Microsoft Word, although you could (in theory) use any Office application.

Let's start with something simple. Open Word;

Microsoft Word: Blank Canvas!
This is basically just a blank word document into which we're going to add the following text;

Here's a simple link; 
Here's a few email tests; (blank) (with a subject) (with a subject and a body)
As you can see nothing complicated. Paste this into Word (as plain text, just so you don't get any web formatting) and press Ctrl-K and the "Insert hyperlink" dialog box will appear;

Building A Simple URL Link In Word
As you can see the entry box at the top is displaying the text that will appear in the document, while at the bottom you can see the address the link will take you to.

NOTE: If you have any %20 strings (or similar) in the "Address" field then this is because you selected a white space either before or after the URL address. Just click cancel, change the highlighting to not include the spaces, and then try again.

When you return to the document you'll now see the Google address highlighted in blue;
Highlighted Links In Word
Next select the " (blank)" line and again press Ctrl-K. Now when the "Insert Hyperlink" dialog appears click on the "Email address" button at the bottom left;

Inserting an Email Address as a Hyperlink
Here you can enter the details of what you want to display and where you want the email address to go. Just enter " (blank)" in the box at the top, and the email address "" in the email address field. Then click "OK".

Repeat the above process for the second link (with a subject) and enter the subject "THIS IS A TEST".

The final option, an email link with a subject AND a body, is a little more complicated. Word doesn't seem to offer a way of doing this through the "Email address" interface so you'll need to craft the link in direct HTML. The easiest way to do this is to use the same "Existing file or web page" we used to create the first link to Google;

Building a Custom Address To Trigger an Email
Here's the text you need to enter into the "Address" field; WITH A BODY&body=BODY TEXT

This, when clicked on, will create a email with the subject "TEST WITH A BODY" and the email body text of "BODY TEXT". Like this in Outlook;

Email With Subject & Body in Outlook
When you return to your document this will now have all the links highlighted and ready to click. If you export the document to a PDF the links will be maintained.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

iOS: Downloading SD Video Direct To iPads (When Purchased HD)

This has been frustrating me for a while so I thought I'd write a blog about it. Basically I have access to a couple of 16GB iPads which are ideal for the kids to play with BUT the movies/ TV shows I want them to watch I own in HD and when you look at the size of the HD files - such as Disney's Brave below - 3.42GB in HD vs 1.46GB in SD then the storage on the device is being eaten away pretty quickly;
Disney's Brave; HD vs SD File Sizes
Now back in the days when you used cables to connect iOS to iTunes you could just download the SD version into iTunes and sync it across. Technically you still could with iTunes Wi-Fi Sync but the problem is if you're going to use iCloud (which is just fantastically useful in every other way) to manage your content there doesn't seem to be an obvious or easy way to switch between versions.

As you'll know to download your pre-purchased content you need to go into the iTunes Application your iPad and then touch on the "Purchased" button (bottom right);

iCloud Purchases Tab (iTunes on an iPad)
and then touch the film you're interested in;
Downloading an iCloud Purchase Direct to an iPad
and finally touch the "Cloud" icon to start the download.

Occasionally you'll notice that instead of the "Cloud" icon you'll just get a "Watch" button. I'm not entirely sure what this button is for - it doesn't seem to actually start the movie playing (at least it doesn't on my iPad 2 or my iPhone 5!).

The problem is you can't choose between SD and HD when you trigger the download.

There doesn't seem to be any quick and easy way around this *however* there is a long and complicated way - go back into the iTunes application and search for the video you are interested in and go to the page. Taking "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" (as shown above) when you open the films page in the store you get the same iCloud download icon but this time you get the HD/SD option for your iCloud download;
iTunes Store Movie Details - With HD/SD iCloud Option
Hopefully Apple will do something about this - it's not exactly the best user interface in the world and as films get bigger and bigger it becomes more and more important to shrink the filesize prior to starting the downloads.

Friday, March 14, 2014

iOS: Using AirServer To Capture iPad Videos

This is a fairly quick blog post that's come up because we have a user requirement to allow them to record how an application works and then "validate" the recording allowing the application to be released.

The issue came up of how we achieve this without sticking a video camera over someone's shoulder and I stumbled upon the "AirServer" application available here;

Interesting I've been using the applicaiton for a while and ended up using Camtasia (for Mac) to capture the video being displayed on my screen. This was a little complicated and very prone to juddering if my Mac was busy doing something else at the time (i.e. running Parallels).

A few months ago AirServer seems to have received an update which allows it to natively record the displayed video (and audio). This seems to work very well, I've updated a video of a short recording I made opening Safari and browsing to a website below;

If you want to see the video on YouTube it's available;

The video, at 45 seconds in length, came to around 14MB (approx. 1/3MB per second - an hour will cost you over 1GB which is about right). The capture is from a retina iPad at 1440x1080.

Setting this up is fairly easy in that you just need to go into Airplay Mirroring on your iPad (providing both are connected to the same network of course!) and turn on Airplay Mirroring;

Then it's just a simple matter of pressing the "Record" button on AirServer once to start it, then again to stop it, and entering the name of the file you want to create.