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The Tools of My Trade

Recently I’ve been watching a lot of Casey Neistat videos on YouTube. If you’re not familiar with him, Casey is filmmaker. It’s fair to say he’s one of the founding fathers of the “daily vlog,” and has brought a methodology and a style to the genre that has since become the standard.

As someone who seems to define the medium in which he works, Casey often gets questions about what hardware he uses to create his videos. He rarely answers them, instead saying that his ideas are important, the tools he uses to express them are not. Pretty much any camera would allow him to convey his ideas, and therefore the best camera is whichever one he happens to have available.

This makes sense. I’d be willing to bet that the last time you went to see a movie the question of which camera model they shot it on never once crossed your mind.

I’m not a filmmaker, I’m a project manager. My tools are Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint… the list goes on but you see what I’m saying. You could argue then, possibly quite persuasively, that the same thinking applies here. We could swap out our office applications for alternative tools, and it would make no measurable difference in any important way.

But that’s not what I believe, and I think I have excellent reason to be excited about my workplace’s upcoming switch from Microsoft Office to Google G-Suite.

Back to Mr. Neistat. If his views on the importance of the tools we use are so opposed to mine you may wonder why I cited them, but actually they illustrate my point very well. Casey preaches that his purpose as a filmmaker is to take his ideas and deliver them to his audience. Anything in-between, no matter how crucial it is to the process, is little more than a barrier. This is a fascinating perspective to me: by this definition every tool
we use is helping us move forwards while simultaneously holding us back. And when the ying and the yang are out of balance? When our tools start to hold us back from our purpose a little too much? It’s time to reassess.

It is time to reassess.

Here’s a brief story: Not too long ago I created a shared OneNote notebook for a small team to help us collaborate on a particular task. It took me 15 minutes to create it and publish to SharePoint with all the right permissions, and another 15 minutes to show people how to open it and synchronize the content. People were blown away with the ease and simplicity of it, and the power of collaborating in real time on the same piece of content; not to mention having a single source of truth and no emailed document preposterously named something like “Important Document v9 FINAL for final circulation FINAL v2.doc.” My 30 minute time investment paid off, then – people even congratulated me on it. But what if we lived in a world where our tools were built from the ground up with that kind of collaboration in mind? What if we never had 12 different versions of every document, spread across four email chains? What if we didn’t have to use the word “investment” when we talked about getting our tools to work for us, and allow get things done in a way that makes sense?

This, is why I’m so excited. The more I lean about G-Suite the more it becomes apparent that it’s been built with this sort of thing in mind: the sort of thing where teams can’t reasonably gather in front of the same whiteboard, can’t huddle in front of the same computer… can’t afford for their tools to hinder their purpose more than they help.

There are countless stories like mine out there in my organization. We’ve become blind to them because we’re so used to the status quo. That’s not OK, but it does mean that with the right approach we could uncover them, collect them together, share them, and nurture them to take on a life of their own. If only we had a platform for that sort thing, hey?

Blog

Raspberry Pi Whole Home Audio: The Death of a Dream?

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know
that I’ve written a whole
series of posts
on my efforts to take a few Raspberry Pis and turn them
into a DIY whole home audio solution.

If you’ve ever looked at the product offering within the
whole home audio space, you’ll know that setting such a thing up is either
cripplingly expensive, involves tearing the walls apart to run cables, or both.

Where we left off I’d put together a solution that was
glorious when it worked, but that was rare. Typically the audio was either out
of sync between the devices right from the get go, or quickly got that way.

Getting the Pis to play the same music was relatively
simple, but getting it perfectly in sync so that it could be used in a
multi-room setup eluded me to the end, and eventually I gave up.

The bottom line is that synchronizing audio between multiple
devices in a smart way requires specialized hardware that can properly account
for the differences in network latency between each of the end points. The Pi
doesn’t have that, and it’s not really powerful enough to emulate it through
software.

So is my dream of a reasonably priced whole home audio
solution dead? Hell no.

In October I wrote
about Google’s announcement of the Chromecast Audio
. At the time it didn’t
have support for whole home audio but Google had promised that it was coming.
It’s here.

The day they announced that it had arrived was the day I
headed over to my local BestBuy and picked up four of these things. I plan to
add two more, and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

Plus, it frees up the Pis for other cool projects. Watch
this space!

Blog

Chromecast Audio

On Tuesday I wrote about how I was very much un-wowed by
Google’s recently announced latest addition to the Nexus line of devices
, the
5X.

There was, however, something announced at last week’s
Google event that I was very excited about.

image

Meet the Chromecast audio.

Chromecast devices have been around for a little while now,
and they’re a USB-powered dongle that plugs into a spare HDMI port on your TV
and allows you to “cast” video from your phone to display it on the big screen.

The audio version follows a very similar concept. It’s also
powered by USB, but then it plugs into your existing stereo and allows you to “cast”
music to it from your phone.

You could argue that Bluetooth works just fine for doing
this – indeed we have a Bluetooth speaker in the kitchen for just this sort of
thing. Google tells us that a WiFi device can offer better sound quality than Bluetooth
is capable of and has some other benefits too, but I don’t care about any of
that.

What I’m excited about, is the possibility of whole home
audio. I built my
whole home audio system
from a collection of raspberry pis because I
thought the existing offerings in the marketplace didn’t offer good value.
Apparently Google agree.

The Chromecast audio won’t have whole home audio
functionality at launch, but apparently it’s coming in a future software
update. I for one am very excited about this.

The benchmark system for whole home audio is quite clearly Sonos – that’s the system against which all
others are measured. They have a product called the Connect which allows you take
a set of speakers you already own and, for want of a better term, make them “smart.”

The Chromecast does much the same thing, but for the price
of one Sonos Connect you could buy ten of them.

Blog

Thoughts on Google’s Nexus Event

If you weren’t aware, last Tuesday Google held a product
announcement event. This was very interesting to me, chiefly because of the new
Nexus phones that were being announced.

About two years ago I bought a Google Nexus 5, either on
launch day or shortly thereafter. I’m very glad that I did, it’s a fantastic
phone that’s still popular today, and it was about half the price of its
similarly-spec’d competitors. The important thing about the price was that it
changed the model under which I purchase smartphones: instead of getting them
deeply discounted or free through a carrier (providing I promise to stay with
them and not change my phone again for two years), I bought the phone outright.

I now have a phone plan that costs me $25 a month for
unlimited calls and texts, and 2gb of internet and the maximum speed my
provider can deliver (it gets throttled if I go over that limit, but even then
I don’t pay more). I got that deal precisely because I already owned my device,
and because I didn’t buy my phone from the carrier I’m not tied into a contract
with them either. If they were to choose to stop offering that kind of
excellent value then I can simply choose to go somewhere else.

Last year at Google’s annual Nexus event they announce the
Nexus 6, and it represents a significant mindset shift that I didn’t like. The
Nexus 5 focused on real-world performance and eschewed bleeding-edge components
in favour of offering superior value, but the 6 took the opposite approach. As
a result it was more money than I wanted to spend on a phone, and it also
followed the trend of flagship phones having huge (six inch) displays, putting
it mighty close to “phablet” territory. I don’t like this trend.

Others felt the same way and the Nexus 6 didn’t see nearly
the same success as the 5. That’s why I was so excited about last week’s event:
a return to the way of thinking that resulted in the Nexus 5 was anticipated,
and in fact many details of the Nexus 5X were leaked in advance.

As the event progressed I kept an eye on coverage of it from
a couple of my favourite sites, waiting to be wowed, but the wow moment never
came.

I think it’s because two years ago the thinking that led to
the creation of the Nexus 5 was outside the box, almost revolutionary. The idea
that a flagship device didn’t have to cost $1,000 was crazy. The model was so
successful though that other manufacturers have taken notice since then. OnePlus
and Motorola are two notable examples offering fantastic phones that are easy
on the wallet.

In retrospect, I don’t know what I wanted from Google. It
was the revolutionary nature of the Nexus 5 two years ago that blew my mind and
this time around I was looking for an evolution that also blew my mind. I got
my evolution, but of course my mind remains intact. It also doesn’t help that
the Canadian dollar is not performing as well against the U.S. dollar as it was
two years ago, so the value isn’t there to quite the same extent.

I will probably still buy myself a Nexus 5X. There’s a lot
to be said for the pure Android experience, the way that Google intended it
(along with immediate updates when new versions are released). What I was
hoping for is a phone that clearly offered a better value proposition than the
Moto X Play (which I believe to be the best value out there right now). The 5X
is a bit better, but also a bit more expensive. It’s a toss-up.

I do wish it had wireless charging though. If it weren’t for
that omission I’d never have gone on this rant.