Tip o’ the Week #105 – Productivity? Learn to type!


Thinking about general productivity often leads one down the path of some methodology to get things done, or some great tools to try and silence the background noise. I’ve certainly featured plenty of both as Tips o’ the Week, but one thing we’ve never covered is simply making correct use of the keys in front of you. Some factoids to amuse your family and bemuse your friends:

  • TYPEWRITER is the longest word that can be made using the letters only on one row of the keyboard.
  • The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog is a pangram, in other words a phrase that contains every letter of the alphabet (in English, at least). It’s often used by typists to try out a new keyboard, and has been used for a long time by typesetters to show off their fonts. It’s not the most efficient (there is a bit of repetition), but it is one of the most sensible in meaning. Well, sort-of.
  • Quick wafting zephyrs vex bold Jim might be shorter, but it sounds like it came from a random word generator, or is the source of some fiendish anagram.
  • It might sound geeky, but “Just My Type” is a fascinating book all about fonts, if you have any spare book tokens or Amazon vouchers after Christmas. No, really. It’s Quite Interesting.
  • The average person’s left hand does 56% of the typing.
  • Stewardesses is the longest word typed with only the left hand and lollipop with your right.

clip_image002It’s been a long-held dream of many computer scientists, that people should be able to interact with their machines without using a keyboard. Remember Star Trek’s Scotty and the Macintosh?

Bill Gates championed Microsoft Research to spend years and years looking into handwriting, speech and gesture recognition – some of which was very ahead of its time (the Tablet PC predating the iPad by 8 years, for example – though history shows being first isn’t always best). Microsoft’s Surface platform developed and delivered multi-touch interfaces before the iPhone made the idea mainstream.

Only now has the technology become cheap, fast and advanced enough to make reliable speech recognition available, but it’s mostly being done on devices like phones (or Kinect sesnros), with cloud services providing the recognition & intelligence. See a comparison of Microsoft’s TellMe (in Windows Phone) with Apple’s Siri (iOS 5) – here. A less favourable comparison, here.

Oh, well.

Even with all the advances in touch and handwriting or speech, we still predominantly enter information into our PCs using the keyboard. And many of us might be embarrassed to still be at the “hunt & peck” method of typing, at best a finger or two of each hand meandering over the keyboard to pick out the right key, whilst looking at the keyboard.

Touch typing revolves around the raised ridges on the “F” and “J” keys, which form the root of the “home keys” – the idea being that you can use 3 or 4 fingers of each hand to type whilst being able to watch the screen and not the keyboard. A decent (nonprofessional) typist should be able to manage 40-50 words per minute (wpm), while the very best touch typists could be 120 wpm or better. Your average web surfer is probably 20-30wpm.

To find out your own WPM and error rate, check here.
The www.powertyping.com site has a number of practice exercises too.

There are a good number of ways to improve your typing – from seeking out the venerable Mavis Beacon software to teach the user, to online (free!) “Online Keyboarding” lessons.

You never know, sharpening up your typing skills could help you get a better work/life balance by being a few percent more effective at doing something we all do, every day!

Tip o’ the Week #46 – Reduce your influx of Corporate Spam

clip_image001[4]We’ve all had unwanted emails from external sources – so-called “Spam”, after the famous Python sketch that featured a café with Spam in every dish on the menu.

A further menace is “Corporate Spam”, or stuff that you don’t want, but which originates from within the corporate network. Usually, C-Spam is simply being cc’ed on a long email that you really won’t ever read, but Distribution Groups provide many other opportunities to send large volumes of email to people who don’t want it.

There are, however, several weapons in Outlook 2010 to help the C-Spam burden be reduced, eg…

Ignore Conversation – find yourself on an email trail with lots of people saying “me too”, “+1”, “please stop hitting reply-all” etc? Simply right-click on any message in that thread, and choose “Ignore…” and the whole lot will be moved to the Deleted Items folder. Any future message in the same thread will be automatically deleted too. See a Demo.

This feature was semi-inspired by a legendary incident that occurred within Microsoft some years ago, known simply as “Bedlam DL3”. Someone in Microsoft IT had been testing automatic creation of very large distribution lists and adding people – alphabetically – to the DL. There were a whole series of Bedlam DLs, but one person spotted they were a member of DL3 one day, by looking at their own entry in the GAL, in the “Member of” tab.They emailed Bedlam DL3 asking “why am I on this DL, please take me off”. The other 20,000+ people on the DL received that message,many of who also said “me too”, followed by many “STOP SENDING EMAILS TO THIS LIST” type messages.

In the 24 hours after the Bedlam DL3 touch-paper was lit, the Microsoft internal email system sent more messages than was normal for a whole year. Needless to say, the quality of service was less than optimal.

Do Not Reply All – Information Rights Management (something we’ll cover in a future ToW) gives us lots of control over what can happen to an email, but it’s a little heavy handed if all you want to do is stop people replying. IRM is now supported on some mobile devices and within Outlook Web Access, clip_image001but it’s not quite ubiquitous, and can be a little intrusive for the recipient.

Well, Gavin Smyth of MS Research sent in details of a great Outlook addin he’s written, which exposes a little-known tweak that will stop Outlook from the “Reply-All” syndrome – the root of the Bedlam DL3 problem.

Simply click on the appropriate Ribbon icon, and when you send an email, you can prevent internal recipients from passing it on. The No Reply All and No Forward functions aren’t rigidly enforced like in IRM, and they only work within the organisation – but they’re quick and easy to use, and have no negative impact for the recipients – it just looks like a normal email, but in Outlook, the “Reply All” or “Forward” buttons are grayed out. Simple.

More details are here.
Download the ZIP file for the NoReplyAll addin’s setup here.

Updated LifeCam software

It’s not exactly “news”, since the Microsoft LifeCam web-camera driver & software package was updated a few months ago, but I only picked up the latest version the other day and it brought a few smiles when playing with it today, during a call with James Akrigg.

vidcam natural

lifecam The LifeCam software does real-time manipulation of the video coming from the camera, and should be visible in any application that uses the webcam (eg IM, Live Meeting etc). A few of the effects are potentially useful – like the one which blurs the background but keeps the face in focus, but most are just silly: some hilariously so.

What’s kind-of amazing about the software is the facial tracking it can do; either to zoom in and out as you move around (and follow your head movements), or to attach effects to your face or the background, all in real time.

My favourite funny effect is the “big mouth” one 🙂

vidcam wide

I can’t for the life of me think of a business reason for using this, but it certainly raised a laugh …

I need some Flo Control – or Arnie Control, more like

Regulars may remember the trouble my PC was having with Arnie the cat well I could use some more technology in and around the house to solve another little problem.

Arnie & his sister have now got quite big – they’re just over a year old, so fully-functional adult cats (well, not entirely fully functional, if you know what I mean), with a keen sense of how to catch, kill and sometimes eat quite a bit of the local rodent population (which given that we live in the country, is quite high).

Now it’s not much fun catching live mice that have been hauled in through the cat flap, it’s not a great deal better picking up the (sometimes partially consumed) cadavers of others, and I’m sure it’s not exactly a great time for the poor little meeces either.

Today, we spent some time dragging the fridge out to locate where the stink was coming from – and eventually located a long-dead mouse underneath. Less than an hour later, whilst we were sitting in the kitchen having lunch, Arnie came steaming through the flap with his latest victim in his gob – prompting stern and immediate attention, in slamming doors, shooing him back outside again etc.

So, a solution must be found.

A few years ago, I came across an intriguing project called Flo Control, where someone had rigged up a PC to the cat flap and performed facial recognition on the cat that was trying to come into the house – in this case, a cat called Flo. If Flo was alone, the flap would open, but if she was carrying anything in her mouth, it would stay resolutely shut.

It seems the guys behind Flo Control think that processor technology has come on so much in recent times, that it will be possible to release a box that fits to the door, without needing the PC attached.

The current solution looks pretty cumbersome – not just with the PC attached, but the box on the other side of the door.  It essentially takes a snapshot of the silhouette of whatever sticks it head towards the flap, and then uses shape recognition technology to decide whether to open the door or not…

All clear, Flo Not so fast, buster…

I Want one of those

This kind of idea could even be a winner for the likes of Dragons’ Den – I’d be quite happy (as a consumer) to pay ~£100 for something like this, and since there are reckoned to be more than 6 million cat owning households in the UK, there’s clearly an opportunity in this country alone. Magnetic flaps which only allow a cat wearing a specific collar to come in & out cost about £40, so it’s not outrageous to think people would spend a good bit more.

A basic device would have a mini-USB port that could take a laptop controlling it (to check on settings etc), would have a rechargeable battery and a simple training mechanism where the cat is plonked on the other side, and (like those fingerprint recognition devices) a few attempts of cat coming in are used to let the device’s cheapo camera figure out what “normal” looks like.

Deluxe editions might be inobtrusively mains-powered, offering the delight of being able WiFi attached, so you could help train it, provide a log of when the cat came in & out (and even which cat it was, if you have a collection) etc etc. Even get alerted on your PC if the cat’s trying to come in but the flap’s not sure if he is solo or accompanied…

Added finesse could even be automatic timing control – eg. cats can’t leave the flap after 9pm but if they’re still outside, then can come in until 11pm after which it closes for the night…

Is this a great example of a techy toy, or something that only a techie could dream up but which could find a following in the general populace? Or another “seems like a good idea at the time” gadget that would gather dust in one of those catalogues full of things you didn’t know you needed, that fall out of the Sunday papers..?

Happy New Year!

The lost art of the OOF

Some time ago, I posted about how the ".sig" has faded from grandeur. I’d like to add the somewhat terminal dryness of the OOF message to that list, and propose a solution.

OOF is a Microsoft term for Out of Office. It should really be OOO, but is stuck in the days of the predecessor to MS Mail and Exchange. See http://msexchangeteam.com/search/SearchResults.aspx?q=oof for myriad stuff on OOFs, and here (on why it’s OOF and not OOO) for one of the first – and for a while, most-read – blog posts on the Exchange team blog.

I’ve seen a lot of OOFs in my time, and many are of a hugely unimaginative nature. Some are kind-of smart in that they convey the most information in the shortest amount of characters (eg "oof til 7/1 – mail jbloggs if urgent") whereas some have clearly been lovingly hand crafted.

When I worked in the Exchange product group, I sent a mail to one particular guy (who is ex-pat Brit but had been over in Redmond for some time) on the 16th December. Turns out, he’d gone "home" for "the holidays" and I got:

I am so on vacation. By the time I get back, I expect things will look different. See you on 1/17/05. I probably won’t ever read your email. Sorry.

There’s something refreshingly honest about that – it’s admitting that he’s not going to be on email for at least a month, by which time, anything he got sent in email will be out of date. Brilliant. Helps build a case for Instant Messaging if you ask me.

Probably the best OOF I’ve seen came from a somewhat eccentric Canadian (who once replied when I mentioned I’d seen him the previous evening in New Orleans, clearly having a Nice Time), "oh yeah… any night when I don’t end up in jail has to be a good night"). Enjoy…

It happened. I knew it would happen some day, but never dreamed it would happen so soon. I tried to hide it from everyone, but word got out and boy did I catch hell for it. Yes, as embarrassing as it is, I must confess before God and country that I was caught, red-handed, Getting Productive Work Done In The Office!

People, please: do try to control your Shock and Horror. I know we used to do real work Long Ago, but we’ve moved past that, haven’t we? It was an honest mistake; an accident in the truest sense of the word. I did my best to hide it from everyone and thought I was successful around the children and my more-dense co-workers. But there is only so long one can live a charade, and in the end, like a house of cards in a hurricane it came down, down, down…

To pay for my egregious act of productivity and practical effort, I’ve been sentenced to two days of offsite meetings by a jury of my direct management.

Yes, kiddies, that is Two Whole Days of unbridled Tag-Teaming, Outlining, Problem-Solving, Situation-Analysing, Team-Building, Proactively-Leveraging, Federating, Brainstorming Facilitation and Group Contemplation. Unpack the markers and the big pads of paper, Martha: we is gonna have an offsite!!

Can you already feel the sweat drip slowly down ewers of water; the ice cubes grumbling with frustration at their inevitable doom in a pastel room filled with inoffensive Corporate Art? Can you see the elegant buffet of Northwest Grilled Salmon Medallions lounging in a Light Cream Sauce over chirping steam trays, accented by a tossed salad of Garden Fresh Greens? Can you hear that first person raise their hand to state, two hours into to the discussion, that "Before we go any further, we need to define the problem" only to be followed seconds later by another person wondering "what are the criteria for success?"

Do you get the idea that at some point on the first day, I’ll be screaming out "BINGO!" to a very confused audience?

Ah; they’re used to it…

A co-worker once told me you could solve any team problem with a case of malt liquor, an afternoon of skeet shooting and a strip club. He’s no longer employed at the company (something to do with an offsite of his own gone terribly awry near the Montana state border) but I think he was on the right track.

Where I am going, there are no visiting hours, and even worse: no conjugal visits. I might be reachable at <number>. Heck, if it’s really important, email or text me. Rumour has it the gardener can smuggle those in hidden in his watering can…

See you on The Other Side,


Now I ask only one thing. We must all put some degree of (professionally relevant) imagination into our OOFs. It’s only respectful to the poor sods still at work who’re sending us email whilst we enjoy a few days out, isn’t it?

Have a Happy New Year, everyone. And please, for the sake of the rest of us, make your OOFs mean something special. Or funny. Or whatever.

When bean counters start counting things they don’t understand the value of.

I’ve been having a discussion with an old friend, who’s telling me of a large financial institution that have suddenly started getting very picky about spending on IT. Maybe it’s the financial environment right now – the tabloids are desperate to paint a doomsday scenario where all the banks are on the verge of collapse, whereas in reality it’s just a blip out of the norm…

Anyway, this scenario is driving the IT people crazy – instead of investing in IT, the accounts department is back to thinking about how they can reduce the spend.

The other day, I was talking about the Gartner-inspired Infrastructure Optimization models and how they can be used as a way of trying to show what value investment in IT can have – maybe this particular company needs to step up a gear to show their bean counters how short term it might be to slash budgets and expect people to just muddle along.

Reminds me of another story about a company whose penny pinchers decided to stop ordering stationery supplies for the stock cupboards on each floor in the building – the idea was that if you had to go to a designated Keeper Of The Stationery Supplies in order to get something, you’d bother rather less and stop being so wasteful.

What happened in that instance was that people spent so long wandering the halls looking for staplers/pens/paperclips etc, that the move to save a few $$ simply caused huge frustration in the end user and probably cost them a fortune in lost productivity too.

I first came across this particular scenario when I saw a spoof video lampooning the draconian stationery rationing measures.

The company was Microsoft.

Stationery supplies were reinstated in the ensuing months.

Sometimes it takes ground-floor people power to make the spreadsheet jockeys take note 🙂

Careful what names you give to Outlook Contacts when using UM!

This is a follow up to Friday’s post about what happens if you have Exchange Unified Messaging set up to send you notifications on missed call alerts (and on voicemail), using caller-ID to reverse lookup against the personal contacts folder.

Stephen Spence commented:

Fingers crossed nobody is using silly names for any of their contacts and finds out about this the hard way!

And he’s absolutely right – I tried renaming the contact I have for my wife (to “Mrs D!”), then called my desk number (whilst OOF was on), from her mobile.

Here’s what she got (viewed in her mailbox via Exchange 2003 OWA):


Just as well I wasn’t calling her “Trouble & Strife” or something like that 🙂

So, be careful… if you have UM and external  OOF turned on, don’t add people into your contacts with disparaging names in case they happen to phone you one day and find out, as Stephen says, the hard way….

Geek T-shirt cool – or not

I always like reading Jason’s blog, and had to laugh the other day when he posted a great picture of a now-favourite t-shirt, which glows when in a WiFi zone.

I’m not much of a t-shirt wearer, but I think the best geek slogan I’ve seen so far is (from the same shop as Jason’s Wifi catcher originates) …


It’s one of those things that you wear and forget you’ve got it on really quickly. All day, people walk up and look at your chest then look puzzled, or else smile because they get the joke… Now all we need is for ThinkGeek to open a .co.uk store so we can order without paying massive delivery costs and customs duties…

Laptop melts, for once it wasn’t the battery

Here’s a funny – it happened a while back, but I was sent a link to this story today. The author kept her laptop in the oven when she wasn’t at home, since it was a high-crime area and it seemed a non-obvious place for a laptop to live…

Postmeltdown2_1Then one day she came home and her partner was cooking french fries… and presumably hadn’t looked in the oven before switching it on 🙂

I suppose it makes a change that the laptop was melted by external factors, rather than the battery causing some internal pyrotechnics.

Even more amazing: the thing booted up and worked just fine!

Picture association – a new variant of word association

I’ve seen this crop up a couple of times on web discussion forums – basically a game kicks off where people post photos and the responses need to be tenuously linked to the previous picture, the more tenuous and clever the better. I’ll add explanations of the examples, but it works best when there are no explanations unless it’s *really* tenuous (might be using specific local colloquialisms, for example). With the right audience, it can be absolutely hilarious – just hit Live image search or Google’s image search, and see what you come up with…


(the French supermarket)

(it’s car number four, after all)

(the previous picture had the name “Duke” on the door…)

Similar looks, perhaps, cowboy hat, and the common theme of “Duke”…

There are some hilarious example out there, but my favourite run is…

clip_image001 -> clip_image002 -> clip_image003  -> clip_image004[1] 

(and so it goes on – what would your next image be?)


This post was in response to Steve tagging me. My own current discs would be:

AlbumArt_{C1EF4A0A-3284-417F-AF13-CB86D9474582}_Small AlbumArtSmall AlbumArtSmall AlbumArt_{5E4E9B19-E16F-4A2E-9FDA-3B97A5844BB6}_Large AlbumArtSmall