Staying Focused In A Noisy Workplace – Music To Code By

Staying Focused In A Noisy WorkplaceStaying focused and productive is a problem for everyone. Digital Nomads may be working anywhere, and modern offices are shifting to open plan office layouts that many find it difficult or impossible to work in.

In a brilliant article entitled “Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace.”  By Lindsey Kaufman the Washington Post shone the spotlight on this bizarre and soul destroying movement to open plan offices. If you want to work a Facebook, Google, Yahoo, eBay or many other tech. companies, you basically have no choice but to buy the best headphones you and find and try and cope. Silence is simply not an option, even with the best headphones, and earplugs are hot and uncomfortable. I am glad I have exited cubicle city!

I work from a mobile office that can be anywhere from a heavy vehicle layover or McDonalds to an airport departure lounge. Today I am in my home office but still have to cope with the sounds of passing traffic and neighbours who love to work on high performance cars at all hours of the day and night. The sound of revving engines, screaming burnouts and loud cheering does nothing for my concentration at any time, and especially not late at night.

Some people like silence, and some play music. Given a choice I would prefer total silence, but find that is impossible to achieve, so I have gone for the music option. The only music I have found that works for me has been some Enya tracks and the sound track from Blade Runner (with one track removed) but I am distracted by lyrics and need to keep the volume low.

Yesterday I heard Carl Franklin, a software developer, podcaster and musician, interviewed on the TWiT network on Windows Weekly  (Skip to 44:15) . When the talk turned to Music To Code By, I wrote the URL down, and went to visit http://mtcb.pwop.com/ and listened through the provided samples. An hour later I bought and downloaded the digital version.

This is instrumental music played between 50 & 80 BPM, a speed designed to help you focus, but not be distracting. The pieces change enough not to be boring, but not enough to demand attention. It will not put you to sleep or sooth, just let you focus and work. The first album is 3 x 25 minute segments. This fits with the Pomodoro Technique of time management, designed to let you focus for 25 minutes, and then spend five minutes exercising, moving around to come back ready to work again five minutes later.

I have set it up on a special playlist alternating the 25 minute segments of MTCB with other songs that run about 5 minutes to signal my five minute breaks.

I have used the Pomodoro Technique for some time with good success, but finding reliable timing methods was a problem. This playlist solves the problem. The music can be played louder than anything else I have tried, and so far is working well.

It is Sunday Morning, and the only distractions are the TV in the next room, passing cars and a dove cooing loudly outside the window tying to woo a mate. I am playing MTCB through speakers at a low level. With my noise rejecting headphones and more volume this music will do the trick anywhere.

I am impressed! This is now my preferred timing system for future productivity. Google Play has a competitor, but a quick listen told me the music is far more intrusive. Carl is working on a second album (two tracks are available individually already) so i have put myself on the mailing list for the next album as well.

Thank you Carl Franklin and Pwop studios.

Travelling Light for Business – Watch The Carry-on Weights

I flew Cabin luggage restrictionsout of Melbourne at 7 pm on Saturday night.

Nothing unusual there. But between arriving at the airport and boarding the plane I went through a security check, got pulled out of the line to have my backpack and bag sampled for bomb making residue, and had my carry-on bag weighed a the boarding gate by Jetstar’s new carry-on police.

The boarding gate weigh-in is because my carrier, Jetstar have just lowered the carry-on weight from 10 Kg (22 lbs) to 7 Kg (15.4 lbs) and people who exceed the 7 Kg weight are charged $50 to have their overweight bags shifted to the hold as late checked baggage.

The carry-on policeman thanked me politely but looked a little disappointed when my bag weighed it at 6 Kg. To my surprise, they did not add the small bag I carried over my shoulder to put under the seat.

I knew about the new limits, and had weighed my bags near the check-in area, and they came to 7.1 Kg, so when I saw the carry-on police ahead, I quickly shifted my Nexus 7 tablet (and case) into my pocket, taking 400 grams out of the load and putting me safely under the carry-on limit.

Others were not so lucky. I saw several people being ushered out of the queue with over-stuffed bags, headed for the $50 sin-bin of late checked luggage.

The reality is carry-on weights vary from country to country and airline to airline. Jetstar even had different rules for different routes. but now, 7 Kg combined carry-on weight is the rule. In my case, the little shoulder bag was not weighed, but that may well come. With budget airlines trying to increase profits, baggage is a money-spinner. In 2013, 20.6% of Jetstar’s revenue came from “ancillary sources” namely food, checked luggage, seat booking fees, booking fees, etc. This added up to an average of $31.60 per passenger.

Qantas reportedly comes third in the world in ancillary revenue per passenger at $US45.67, But much of that is from selling frequent flyer points to credit card providers and retailers loyalty programs.

Overall airlines extracted $US31.5 billion, or $US16 a passenger from ancillary fees in 2013. These fees are helping to get airlines back into the black.

The moral of this little story is, look carefully at what you carry, and where you carry it.

The night before I flew to Melbourne, I made a last minute switch from the HP Stream 11 laptop I am testing back to my HP Chromebook 11 because it, and its power supply were half a Kilo heavier than the Chromebook, pushing me over the 7 Kg limit. It caused problems, mainly that a selection of video and music I had saved on a Micro-SD card for the trip got left behind. I had other sources, so it was just an annoyance, but it has generated a to-do item to write a couple of travelling checklists.

I have learned a number of lessons. I am the proud owner of a hard-shell wheeled carry-on case. I bought is as a kind of walking stick last year when I had to travel while recovering from a month long issue with vertigo (dizziness & nausea when moving around) I could set the handle low, and lean on the four wheeled case as I pushed it along. It was an unusual color but a very cheap demo model, and it saved my life. Its new cousins are still costing around $300, and other similar devices are as high as $840. But now, its 2.5 Kg shell is too big a price to pay for style and convenience.

Kathmandu Lite-Haul Pack
Kathmandu Lite-Haul Pack

I flew with a 1.4 Kg (3 pound) 38 Litre Lite-haul convertible Kathmandu backpack, and discovered that 7 Kg is a totally different story to 10 Kg. Even with a less than robust back I could carry the 7 Kg bag comfortably. I did not deploy the shoulder straps once. I just carried it everywhere will only minor discomfort. I walked 14 Km in three days, 10 of them carrying the 7 Kg carry-on, and arrived home feeling fine.

I simply did not need the 2.5Kg wheely case. Next time I may carry my Nike sports bag. It weighs in at 0.74 Kg saving more than half a kilo for more important items.

200 Gram (0.44 pound) Day Pack
200 Gram (0.44 pound) Day Pack

I carry a lightweight folding backpack. it weighs 200 grams, or 0.2 Kg (0.44 pound) and folds into it’s own back pocket. It easily fits under the seat on the plane with personal items in it, but is big enough to carry 15 liters of personal stuff, shopping or warm clothing. It may not impress at a business meeting, but for a working trip it worked fine for me.

So spend some time checking that you are only travelling with what you need. Most of us add a host of might needs to the mix, and finish up fighting with too much baggage. I recommend a visit to Onebag.com for some tips on keeping it light.

My Office for Today

The Royal Exchange Hotel
The Royal Exchange Hotel

The Royal Exchange Hotel, opposite Southern Cross Station in Melbourne.

This is a quiet bistro and bar below street level and just across the road from the railway station. I arrived for a very late breakfast and ordered the Big Breakfast for $15 with coffee.

The Big Breakfast
The Big Breakfast

The Big Breakfast was indeed big, and came with coffee. Quite a meal.

I set up here and worked for some time. It is quiet, dimly lit and was a battery saver, allowing me to dim the brightness of my HP Chromebook 11 way down. After working for some 30 minutes, the Chromebook was showing 8.5 hrs of battery life remaining.

Anker IQ 40W 5-port Smart USB Charger Reviewed

Anker 40W charger
Anker 40W charger

The best USB power supply I have seen is the Anker 5 port, 8 amp smart charger. It uses a so-called PowerIQ charging system to provide the best power possible for each device. It is a small brick shaped device that connects to the wall via a figure-eight cable.

A USB based charger can charge most portable devices, from Android phones and tablets, iPhones, iPads, Bluetooth headsets, Cameras, to a wealth of other devices.

Most of these devices come with a “wall wart” plug pack and a USB to micro or mini USB plug, or the Apple Lightning connector. Carrying the original charger for every device we own, and finding a power outlet for each is impossible.

The Anker charger is a small brick, smaller than a cigarette packet, (58 x 91 x 25mm) with 5 USB ports on one end and the small two-pin figure eight socket on the back. The advantage of this (and the wide power supply range) is that the charger can be used in any country with the addition of the correct cable. It can be found on Amazon here and eBay here.

Every USB device makes it’s power requirements known by talking to the charging port via serial communications through the two inside pins, or, for dumb charging devices, by being wired with certain resistors in the power lines. This allows a smart charger to supply just the right amount of power to each device. The Anker charger is very well regulated, and assuming the cables are of suitable quality, maximum charging speeds will result. Overcharging is impossible as long as decent cables are used. I label the cables that come with my devices and try to keep the correct cable with each device. I have only once seen a different cable to cause a problem. It was supposed to have a “Fast Charge” switch on the plug. switching to “Fast Charge” caused charging to stop completely! More about cables another time.

Anker 5 Port 40W charger
Anker 5 Port 40W charger

I found the results to be impressive, though I could never get my HP Chromebook 11 to charge at anything like the 3 amps that it’s dedicated charger is supposed to deliver. But I torture tested the Anker charger on a one week stay in Melbourne recently. I was sharing accommodation with three other device users. Each night four smartphones, three tablets, a USB charged HP Chromebook 11, a power bank, Bluetooth headsets, two keyboards and a USB powered Seagate WiFi hotspot and media server all had to be kept topped up by the Anker IQ 40W 5-port smart USB charger. It worked flawlessly for the week, charging everything, in some cases with split two headed charging cables connected.

Anker 5 Port 40W charger Replacement
Anker 5 Port 40W charger Replacement

The Anker IQ 40W 5-port charger comes with an 18 month warranty, and this is backed by an impressively fast and helpful customer support operation. My first charger had one port die within a week. Anker asked for the serial number of the device, and had a replacement in the mail within 24 hours. Since they are in the US and I am in Australia the replacement arrived with great speed. A tribute to a real belief in quality and customer support.

Anker now has a 60W version, but I seriously doubt it will result in faster charging except with the most extreme combination of devices. But if you believe more is better, here is a link to the 60W charger on Amazon.

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Logitech T630 Ultrathin Touch Mouse

Logitech T630 Ultra-thin Touch Mouse
Logitech T630 Ultra-thin Touch Mouse

For many users of touch devices such as phones and tablets, mice are a thing of the past. For me, the mouse still has a huge place in my toolkit. It is essential for laptop and desktop computing, and even editing text on a tablet works better with a mouse.

I use a number of tablets and computers on a daily basis, and wireless mice have three drawbacks. They require a spare USB port for the dongle, they require AA or AAA batteries, and they are mostly fairly large.

I spend a lot of time using Laptops, Chromebooks and Tablets. None of these have a lot of spare USB ports, and some have none at all. So Bluetooth is the only option to get full functionality on all devices. If I am doing serious typing on my Nexus 7 Tablet, I connect a Bluetooth keyboard, and at times, having a mouse is handy.

If I am travelling, I will have a Chromebook or an Ultrabook. Long hours working on one of these devices on a table or on my lap is a sure invitation for a stiff neck, and back pain. So I carry a stand that tilts the laptop up to a level where the screen is comfortable.  This may require a Bluetooth keyboard, but always makes the trackpad difficult to use, so I always use a mouse if I have the room.

I have been using a Microsoft Sculpt Touch mouse, simply because it was the only Bluetooth mouse I could find here in Tasmania, Australia that was reliable. The Sculpt Touch is a good size, but has a tactile bar that replaces the wheel that drives me absolutely crazy. It is impossible to control on non Windows computers, and just plain bad on Windows. Scrolling becomes an exercise in frustration that has on one occasion literally driven me to throw the mouse across the room (onto a lounge chair, I was frustrated, not stupid) and resort to the touch pad. It also uses 2 AA batteries, and therefore is quite heavy.

I do not like mice that require batteries. When I travel I must take spare batteries, and/or a charger. I like everything I use to charge from a USB port. This makes it possible to travel for an extended period with only one charger. I have a USB powered AA/AAA charger, but it is another device, and unless I carry spares, I have to stop work and wait for my mouse batteries to be charged, or do without the mouse

So I went shopping for ANY mouse that was Bluetooth enabled and has USB charging. I took a few deep breaths before I paid out $90 for a mouse, and kept the receipt in case I could not use it, but I have found THE perfect mouse for me.

The Logitech T630 Ultrathin Touch Mouse

Logitech T630 Ultra-thin Touch MouseThe Logitech T630 Ultrathin Touch Mouse. I confess, if I had seen one, I may have gone for the T631 white mouse, but other than that, this is mouse is ideal for me. It is very small, 59 x 85 x 19mm and weighing only 70 grams.  The tiny size had me worried that it might be difficult to control, but it invites you to place two or three fingertips on top and control it that way. There is no wheel, the entire top surface is touch sensitive, and stroking the top surface up and down or sideways provides a scroll effect. The provided software works on Windows & Mac, and adds multi-touch functionality, but since I use Chrome OS, Linux and Android as well as Windows I have kept my use to the basic functions that work on every device.

Scrolling is smooth and effortless, and can be done almost anywhere on the top of the mouse. The Bluetooth setup is a function of the operating system, but the mouse seems to reconnect on wake-up very fast. It has been faultlessly reliable.

An added feature that a number of Logitech keyboards have is the ability to pair to two or more devices, and switch between them with the flick of a switch. The Logitech mouse has a switch on the bottom of the mouse that allows two connections. I would love the ability to connect to three devices, like my Logitech K810 Keyboard, but two is enough for most situations.

To keep the mouse clean and small, the micro-usb charging port is on the bottom, so the mouse cannot be used and charged at the same time. This is not really a problem. One minute of charging will run the mouse for an hour. I have only had the mouse go flat once, I plugged it in for a minute to get it working, continued worked until I wanted a break, and re-charged it the few minutes I was away from the computer. Basically I charge the mouse & keyboard up once a week, and just forget about it after that. I do not bother to switch it off unless I am travelling.

I am far more concerned with function than looks, but it is still a pretty mouse. it is small, works on everything (better if you have the Windows or Mac software, but I am happy without the extras) and has a simply beautiful scroll surface.

Watch out for the Click!

Logitech T630 Ultra-thin Touch MouseI have seen criticism of the buttons sticking down. The do NOT stick. The buttons are under the chassis of the mouse. There are no buttons on top of the mouse. It is a single, unbroken touch surface. The entire mouse moves down when you click a button. If (like me) your fingers hang over the sides of the mouse, and touch the desktop it is possible that when you click (press down) your fingers, resting on the desktop, will grip the mouse tightly enough to stop it coming back up. This is a user error, based on the very light, small and short travel of the mouse. As you become aware of this, you learn to be a little gentler in handling the mouse, and it then moves perfectly.

I became comfortable with the tiny, light and sensitive nature of the mouse quickly. the button held down issue took a few days. but now, when I have to use a normal mouse it feels monstrously big, and awkward. Having to deal with a shrunken tendon in my right hand makes this mouse even more friendly.

Overall, this is my choice for the best ever portable mouse, and in my case, the best mouse ever.

The quick and simple connection with Chrome and Android devices as well as the usual Windows and OS x devices makes it very versatile. Frankly, the best ever! It is small, light and a little different in use due to the tactile to surface, but once you use the mouse for a few days, you will not want to go backwards to an old, traditional mouse.

I am writing this on an ASUS Chromebox, with a Logitech K810 Keyboard and a Logitech T630 Ultrathin Touch Mouse in Google Docs. Despite the high price, I am trying to convince my wife that a second T630 Ultrathin makes sense for my office, where I use multiple devices on a daily basis.

The jury is still out on that second mouse… But I am hopeful…

“The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande

The Checklist Manifesto
The Checklist Manifesto

A Book Review – “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande.

I buy too many books, and often they sit on a shelf (or my Kindle) for months or even years before I read them.

In this case I bought “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande almost as a stocking stuffer. I had bought a book I really wanted online, and since I have been trying out checklists to make myself a little more efficient, this looked like something to add to the order. I was expecting a book about how to write checklists.

Instead I got a book that verged on a thriller. The author has a brilliant, first person writing style, and personally pursued the use of checklists from aviation, construction, medicine and even five star restaurants. From visiting Boeing and seeing how a checklist could save an aircraft by getting in a simulator and experiencing an emergency firsthand to standing in a restaurant for a night counting how many dishes got sent back before they left the kitchen. How Walmart was getting relief supplies into a ravaged New Orleans days before FIMA and the federal government.

This book is fascinating, powerful, thought provoking and absolutely essential reading. I will never see complex processes and systems the same way again.

The author proves that our world has become incredibly, even dangerously complex, and demonstrates that the humble checklist can show us ways for the average, or even exceptional  mind to manage and tame the complexity.

He walks the reader through the process of creating a checklist for the WHO (World Health Organization) for use in surgery all over the world, from impoverished and overworked hospitals to the best in the world. What they did wrong (making them to long or complicated) and how they solved the problem.  The author, a top surgeon, decided to “eat his own dog food” and applied the checklist in his own operating room. It picked up problems immediately, and in one case, described in a humble and honest style, proves that the checklist worked, and saved a life on the author’s own operating table.

The statistics came back from hospitals and operating theaters around the world where extraordinary, and gratifying.

A team of smart people with almost no budget created a checklist, and a desire to use it, and sent it out to the world. That list will continue to save lives for years to come.

I read this book in one day, and will read it again, soon. And I am already writing checklists to help me manage my much too busy business and life.

Why Telstra Sucks – A Lesson in Poor Service

Telstra has gone from one of the most respected entities in Australia to a joke among it customers. Here is one reason why.

telstra-sucks-sml

It is a truism that good service is good marketing. Certainly it is easier and cheaper to keep an existing customer that it is to get a new one. Smart managers know this at put a lot of effort into retaining their existing customers.

 The last twelve months have seen me go from a very long term Telstra customer into a very disgruntled ex-customer.

This saga began when my business partner, who also is my son, was facing surgery and a protracted hospital stay. He had formerly worked from the office, and had not had a mobile phone. I use the mobile phone diffidently, usually to allow people to contact me, rather than me calling out. So the business had a low cost business plan with two mobiles sharing one data plan. It was economical and activated it in 2009.

So in October 2012 I went into a Telstra shop to activate a third phone.

Enter the clowns…

Our business plan was no longer available, to add a new phone we would have to move to a plan that was 20% more expensive. That was a shame, but not a deal breaker. I had an existing handset, and simply wanted a SIM and a connection to our business plan that allowed us to call between phones.

For some reason that was never explained, the phone first had to be activated with a 10$ pay as you go SIM. This was explained after the SIM was installed. This was annoying, because I already have three unused $10 PAYG SIMs in my desk drawer.

I waited for two hours while repeated calls where made, forms filled out and signed, whispered consultations and trips into the back room, and more calls. I left to get back to work, and returned the next day for another two hours. Just before the store closed I was assured they would get everything working the next day, and call me if there where problems. The phone was working, but I had data turned off until I was sure it was on a data plan. Given Telstra’s outrageous charges for casual data I was not taking risks.

All seemed well, the next phone bill looked about what I had expected. I paid it.

This is not my account number!

Then on the 11th of December I got a notice that my mobile phone account was in arrears. It was a account number I did not recognise. The Telstra shop had created a new account for my third mobile phone. Calls between it and the other two business phones where being charged and full rates. And a data pack had been added each month. In the meantime my existing phones had been moved to a more expensive plan, and both phones now had data packs, even though one handset did not have data capability. My mobile phone charges had gone up more that 300%.

Between 11 December 2012 and May 2013 I spent over eight hours on the phone over multiple calls trying to rectify the problem. The second account was cancelled, but I still had to pay the three months charges including multiple $15 data packs that had never been touched. My two existing phones where now being billed at almost three times the rate I had paid previously. All told the three phones where costing five times as much as the two had. And the Testra support lines could do nothing but promise it would be fixed NEXT month, just pay this bill, it will be fixed next time. It never was. 

They never missed sending a bill on time, though!

At the end of May, in total frustration, I moved to another carrier, and Telstra promptly billed me $344 for exiting my contracts early. I had been a mobile customer since the days of analog phones, my first being a Motorola brick that would just fit in a briefcase without bending the aerial.

I had been on a Telstra business plan for more than five years. But I was billed for early termination of my contract because Telstra had forced me to move to another plan so I could add my third phone.

Another 45 minute phone call got that termination fee halved. and I decided $172.02 was a small price to pay for finally being free of the worst customer service experience I have ever been through.

It was too much to hope for… When the SIM cards arrived from our new carrier, one phone demanded an unlock code. This was a handset I had bought outright from a Telstra shop more than two years before. I did not know it was network locked, because I was using it on the Telstra network.

Once again I went back to Telstra phone support. A 15 minute call gave me the assurance that I would have an unlock code within five working days. A week later I called again, and got the same assurance, and again a week later. On the fifth attempt I was a little more forceful. My problem was escalated to a supervisor, and I would get a call back within one hour.

Fortunately, I have a drawer full of old feature phones, and we pressed one back into service to keep us working. Because once again, nothing happened.

I called back in another week. I got the same routine. “Sorry sir, it is a priority, we will call back before close of business”.

$15 and 5 minutes accomplished what Telstra could not do in six weeks

The next day I  Googled unlocking Telstra handsets and in five minutes had payed $15 via Paypal to an individual in Australia. I thought the money might just disappear, but 30 minutes later I had the unlock code, instructions, and a phone number I could call if I had problems. within 10 minutes the phone was working again.

Something that Telstra should have done free, and had been promising for more than six weeks was done in 30 minutes for $15.

Like the previous fees, I considered it money well spent. I am now totally free of the bloated and inept Telstra. The total cost of getting that extra handset working ran to $480.42 above what I should have been charged. and when it was finally working with three phones on one light usage business plan it was costing 2.5 times as much as I am paying on my new carrier. And I am enjoying  four times as much data per month.  

Goodbye Telstra. Do something about your customer service or you will find yourself going the way of the dinosaurs. Too slow and stupid to respond to a changing world of social media and fast responding competition.

Photo Credit: Indigo Skies Photography via Compfight cc