Tip o’ the Week 471 – Buying stuff at auction

clip_image002As the web turns 30 and its role in the End Of the World As We Know It starts to become more clear, it’s worth reflecting on how the technology has disrupted more traditional businesses, sometimes ironically turning them on their head before turning into them.

One literally dusty and old-school business that is reinventing its traditional method, is that of the auction house. As any Brit hooked on Bargain Hunt or Cash in the Attic might attest, the auctioneer will let any amount of old toot pass under their gavel on the basis that they’re making some commission from the seller and gathering a not-insubstantial buyer’s premium from the successful bidder, too.

ToW#359 covered auctions a while ago, and covered some strategies in making sure you get the best deal.

It seems that the auction market is growing, and not just in high value art or fancy motoring. If you go to the saleroom of a bricks & mortar auctioneer these days, there is likely to be at least as much bidding action coming in online as there is in the room, but it’s all dealt with in real-time by a real-life master of the hammer, even if at some places and times nobody knows what they’re actually saying.

So, as well as perusing the ‘Bay for used stuff to fill your abode, and looking on Gumtree / Craigslist for clutter that’s not only cheap but nearby, it’s worth searching on some sites who provide aggregation services to real auctioneers, listing their catalogues online and providing real-time online bidding too. For a small fee, of course. Examples include The Saleroom, EasyLiveAuctions, iBidder or Invaluable.

You may want to look for your quarry on any one – or all – of the platforms, find an item you like, have a look at the photos etc, then go straight to the auctioneer’s own website and make a commission bid. These are entered on your behalf by the auction house, supposedly only high enough to win the auction unless you’re outbid. In practice, if you put a commission bid of £200 for something because you can’t attend in person or be online live to watch & interact with the auction, then be prepared to secure the item for £200… plus maybe 28% buyers premium, and a hefty charge for post and packaging if you’re not nearby enough to collect in person. Still, you might save the 6% or so that an aggregator would charge on top.

In truth, buying most things at auction is a bad idea: there’s little to no legal protection and if the thing you’ve bought it a dud, then it’s on your head to fix it. Many bidders at auctions are dealers themselves, and they’ll have a canny eye for what to get and what to avoid – and their “good” stuff will end up in their antique shop, with a 100% mark-up, or it’ll be cursorily cleaned up and shoved on eBay.

You’d be better off finding the people directly with things to sell if you can, or ferret around in a charity shop; for some goods, like watches, there are free aggregators (the likes of WatchRecon or WatchPatrol) who scrape all of the private “for sale” ads and let you deal directly with the vendor, rather than going through a middleman like an auctioneer or eBay. For cars, there are both free and paid-for advert platforms (eg ClassicCarsForSale, PistonHeads) that make it easy to find either the dealer or private owner who’s selling up.

clip_image003Selling via auction doesn’t make too much sense a lot of the time, either – you’ll pay fees and you’ll be reliant on them bothering to describe and photograph your item properly, and put some effort into talking it up on the day.

Here’s an example of a consignment to an auctioneer – a box of books, with titles like “A Fortune in your Attic” or “Treasures in your Home”.

The box sold for £2.

So, if you’re buying cheap rubbish, then don’t think twice about which platform you use.

If you’re buying Paul Newmans, though, it could even be worth flying in and doing it in person.

Tip o’ the Week 435 – Symbols, reprised

clip_image002When the late purple paisley musician Prince restyled himself as a squiggle (or “Symbol”), nobody knew quite how to reference him or his work, so he was given the monicker “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”. The new “Love Symbol” logo that represented his “name” was not a regular symbolic character, and after first trying to get everyone to download a special font file that had that character in it, eventually he relented and rebranded back to Prince again.

Working with special symbol characters was covered back in ToW #362; there are lots of less esoteric characters that are in regular use: but have you ever stopped to think how they came to be?

The Ampersand (&) has been around for 2,000 years, starting as a single character to join the letters e and t, ie the Latin for “and”. It’s a surprisingly common symbol, often used in company names and logos … but not universally loved by writers, or the odd legal secretary in days of dictation typing (the lawyer doing the dictation might record the company name as “Smith & co” since that’s the legal name, but more than one typist has produced the letter addressed to “Smith Ampersand co”…)

What about the @ symbol? Popularised by accountants and keepers of ledgers, the “Commercial At” (short for “at the rate of” – eg. meaning 10 units at the price of 1 shilling – 10@1s), was part of the relatively limited character set of a standard typewriter for over 100 years. It’s arguably called the Asperand though has many other names; contemporary usage has meant the symbol is either the key conjunction in an email address or the start of a digital invocation in the way of a mention.

The Asperand has nearly as many alternative names as the Octothorpe, though modern users wouldn’t necessarily think about the history of the symbol, even though it has variously been used to denote “number”, to be “pound” on your telephone keypad, or the “hash” symbol (a corruption of hatch, as in the hatching pattern) and hence, hashtag.

Tip o’ the Week 413 – Got Skills, they’re multiplying

clip_image002It’s not been a great time in the press for Cortana. The personal assistant software which appeared nearly 4 years ago on Windows Phone 8.1 and later Windows 10, has been eclipsed in the last year by hardware-based offerings from Amazon and Google. At gadget-fest show CES in Vegas this week, manufacturers were even showing Alexa on their PCs (presumably in exchange for $$ from the largest online retailer).

The personal assistant market (somewhat incorrectly referred to as “AI”s by the mass media) is being talked up as a new frontier, of voice control meeting smart language understanding and connectivity. Apple were first to the market in the public consciousness with Siri, but now that Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home devices have been very sucessful (the Echo Dot being Amazon’s top selling bit of kit over the holiday season), the idea that people would use a phone as the main way to voice-interact with online services seems a little less assured than it was a couple of years back.

Alexa has led the way with integrating Amazon’s device and service, with other devices and services – just as the app made the smartphone useful and pervasive, the “skill” support of your chosen digital assistant seems set to make or break that ecosystem. Amazon has talked up having over 25,000 skills for Alexa – really impressive, though like smartphone appstores, there are a lot of “fart app” equivalents in there, amongst the good stuff.

clip_image004Meanwhile, Cortana has been showing up on other hardware and building skills, both at a slower rate. The Haman Kardon Invoke speaker – fairly well received as a music device and Bluetooth speaker as much as a smart assistant – is on sale at $99. The beautiful-looking JCI GLAS smart thermostat, powered by Windows 10 IoT Core, is on the way too.

The Cortana skills kit promises to make it really easy for developers to add Cortana support for their apps and services, though Cortana Skills are still officially “in preview”. Alexa and Cortana may yet get friendly – though it hasn’t happened quite in the timescale envisaged.

Despite reports, Cortana is not dead, yet – there are device partnerships being announced and due to be announced. And the Cortana assistant is available on Android and iOS; Samsung S8 users could even remap the Bixby button with Cortana, though unofficially.


clip_image006Skills on Windows 10

If you’ve a PC with the latest OS, you can get Cortana by pressing WindowsKey+Q, or even WindowsKey+C (to go straight to Cortana’s voice input), or even by saying “Hey Cortana” (check in Settings, look for Cortana). If you’re in the US, then you may be able to access Cortana Skills straightaway – there’s no installation or association required (like you’d need to do with Alexa skills), though you might need to configure or authorize the skill on first run.

Check out the list of supported Skills, here – there are quite a few fillers (yet more guff apps) making up the modest 250-odd skills available, but there are some good ones there too – see the featured skills for example.

clip_image008If you’re in the rest of the world, though, you may be disappointed – Cortana Skills are US only for now. To have a play, go into the “Talk to Cortana” settings page, and at the very bottom, set the language to English (United States). You’ll need to wait a few minutes for your PC to install the appropriate language support, but soon, you’ll be able to ask Cortana – on your PC – things like, “Hey Cortana, ask Dark Sky for today’s forecast”.

For previous coverage of Cortana on ToW, see #380, et al.

Tip o’ the Week 410 – Inbox Zero for New Year?

clip_image001ToW has covered various strategies in dealing with email (189, 223, 310 and more), but this week’s tip is shamelessly lifted from a LinkedIn article by an erstwhile colleague and media industry leviathan, Tony Henderson.

Tony, it turns out, authored a book a few years back which offered a slightly different-than-the-norm spin on productivity and how to deal with some of the difficulties of the modern workplace. It’s from this tome that he picked some great tips in handling your inbox – perhaps leading to the ability to clear it completely and leave “inbox zero”.

The Eleven Rules of Email

  1. Daily Mail Test – “Never write anything in an email that you would not be happy for your mother to read on the front page of the Daily Mail.”
  2. Responding – Don’t be too quick to respond to email requests – emails are very easy to send, and it is often hard and time consuming to respond.
  3. Expectations – Get people to call you if they want something urgently so that you know whether they are really serious and why they need a response.
  4. Inbox Management – Clear your inbox every day to less than 30 emails (so the list does not reach the bottom of outlook page). Set up folders covering each area you work on – or groups you deal with – and file religiously – even if you have not always read. That way you can go back and review by topic and avoid the stress of an overfull inbox.
  5. Getting Things Actioned – if you are sending an email looking for someone to act flag that action is required by putting ACTION REQUIRED in the title which will mean that everyone who the email is copied will read it.  To make it really clear who and what you are asking you must highlight specific requests e.g.: “Action: Alan to check this issue and confirm.” This approach works well with people you know, but may be ignored by people who you don’t – a good idea to get verbal agreement first.
  6. Getting Your Message Across – If you need to get an email response from senior people who are busy or don’t know you very well.                       
    • Construct your title carefully (perhaps write it as a proposition such as – “Getting final approval for Project X”).
    • Get the message over in three short and punchy paragraphs – no more.
    • If you want approval, ask for it by asking them to merely reply to that email and type “yes”. This works very well as it makes it so easy for them to respond!
    • Remember that people are all really pressured by email but generally always scan the title and first few lines.
  7. Avoiding Inevitable Email Accidents – the speed and simplicity of email will always lead to some mistakes; many of them can be rectified by adopting two simple principles.
    • Set a Delay – Set a sending delay of at least 2 minutes on your Outbox – it gives you just enough time to delete that accidental email. Better still you can set it for specific addresses such as clients.
    • Double Check Addresses – Double check your address lines in email before you send – Outlook auto insert often puts odd names in there.
  8. Arguments – Never, ever have an argument by email – everyone loses and it is recoded for posterity. If you sense a disagreement coming, make a call or organise a face to face meeting and then circulate the conclusions by email.
  9. Favourite Form of Communication – Email is not everyone’s favourite form of communication. Some people are better “live”, others like to use the phone, and others respond to formal letters or memos. Try and find out which form your key people like and use it for important communications.
  10. Circulation List – When you need to respond to an email with a wide circulation on it, you need to stop and think. Do I need to send this to everyone? Is this “thread” wasting a lot of people’s time? (You can be sure that it is).
  11. Interruptions – While internal emails can be a huge waste of time they can also avoid unnecessary interruptions. After you have interrupted someone at their desk it can take up to 30 minutes for them to get back to their original task.
    So while talk is best, email may be a useful method to log a question or thought. Equally making a note and saving it for a lunchtime chat is also a good option.

See Tony’s article here, and The Leopard in the Pinstripe Suit, here.

Tip o’ the Week 409 – Touchpad settings

clip_image002Once upon a time, mice had balls, and there was even a joke field service bulletin telling customers how to manage them better.

Microsoft has had a few funny KB articles over the years, too, though not necessarily intended to amuse. Barney sometimes plays on his own…, for example – who knew?

Given that a defining feature of mechanical meeces was the fact they had a rubbery ball inside, it seemed obvious to early laptop designers that a trackball would make sense to move the pointer around.

Eventually the touchpad took over, and divided opinion – some people just couldn’t live without a USB-tethered proper mouse, which they carted around with their laptop, while designers sought to add more and more functionality to the touchpad.

clip_image004A slew of 3 or even 4-finger gestures can change the behaviour of the machine, from switching between apps to controlling the system volume.

On a Windows 10 laptop, if you type touchpad at the start screen to find the settings that control it, you’ll see a load of clip_image006additional gestures have been added over time, depending on what capabilities your machine has (specifically, if it has a Precision Touchpad or not).

If you’re especially particular about how your touchpad works, you may wish to look into tuning it further through registry tweaks.

Tip o’ the Week 408 – sign up for email lists

clip_image001The curse of email is that it’s too easy to send nonspecific content to large groups, meaning it’s generally in everyone’s interests to avoid getting any more. How often do you have to parse some online form where you need to leave the checked checkbox unchecked if you’d like to remain not signed up to receive specially selected offers from our carefully chosen partners?

That said, email distribution lists were an early form of mass collaboration – powered by the likes of LISTSERV, where online communities formed, in some ways an alternative to USENET and the web forums that now host many interest groups online. In the days of LISTSERV, email volumes would be relatively low, and it provided a simple distribution system that fired mail out to everyone on the list, and people could easily join and leave, by simply mailing a JOIN or LEAVE command to the address.

Next time there’s an internal company email storm (the famous Bedlam DL3 storm at Microsoft occurred just over 20 years ago), it’s not necessarily counter-intuitive for people to respond in the “take me off this list” manner, even though the perpetrators themselves are probably unaware of that.

If you find yourself getting unwanted email from marketeers or newsletters you’re not interested in, there are a variety of ways of opting-out – most kosher bulk email tools will allow you to unsubscribe with a link at the bottom; if the email is completely unsolicited, however, then clicking on an “unsubscribe” link in a spam message might just mark you as a real person, and you’ll get even more spam in future. If in doubt, you might want to rely on some of the built-in tools within Outlook, to protect you from further spammage.

3rd party bulk unsubscribe tools like https://unroll.me/ might help clean up subscriptions for consumer mail platforms like Outlook.com, Gmail etc, though exercise with caution as there’s always a risk they’ll just be exposing your data to people you shouldn’t.

Though aggregated news apps and websites are ten-a-penny, there are some very good resources out there that are worth signing up to receive mail from – for example…

  • WhatIs from TechTarget, which gives a Word of the Day email (there’s a big red button on the page, to sign up) which explains a topics word or phrase; you’ll almost certainly know many of them enough to hit delete as soon as you see the mail, but every so often there’s a just-detailed-enough explanation to make it worthwhile. Check out the archive of Words of the Day.
  • Owler is a free, professional, community-driven (crowd-sourced, even) news service that curates news from companies you might be interested in and packages, including a Daily Snapshot email that might be a good way of picking up company intelligence you might otherwise miss.
  • LinkedIn is a great way of getting notifications about people you’re connected with, but can also give you news about companies you want to follow, as well as a curated Daily Rundown page. It’s especially useful if you have access to LinkedIn Sales Navigator (see MS internal learning)

Tip o’ the Week 407 – e-books in Edge

clip_image002Books have been an emotive subject for centuries; they further and represent knowledge, belief, culture and a whole lot more. Doing things to books has an impact, too – whether it’s the dramatic (like tomecide, the symbolic burning of books) or just the annoying (ever leant someone a book, then seen how they folded back along the spine, or just never gave it back?)

The book business has been a metaphor for big vs small biz for years, as well – from the Shop Around the Corner in You’ve Got Mail to the phenomenon of Amazon and the massed ranks of bricks & mortar sellers.

For years now, the assumption has been that real books are going the way of the CD or the DVD – still around, but in terminal decline as technology has changed the game to allow people to read content electronically rather than needing the inconvenience of printing, distributing, retailing and storing all those bits of dead tree.

Despite gloomy forecasts for the future of the printed word, earlier this year, it was reported that sales of electronic books were falling, against a rise in sales of physical books. The dedicated ebook reader appears to have had its day, with mobiles and tablets occupying that niche more, but younger readers are turning to real books again, presumably so they thumb through the tomes while listening to their LPs.

clip_image004clip_image006So, what better time to introduce electronic books into your favourite web browser? Edge has an eBook library – click the Hub icon on the toolbar and look under the books icon to see it. See here for more details.

You can download eBooks from a variety of online resources – including Microsoft Virtual Academy. In more recent Insider builds for Windows 10, the functionality and layout has changed (there’s no more “Shop for books” link, as the revamped Store has – at least for now – no obvious way of distributing books), and more change is likely to come.

Still, Microsoft employees can open the books section, sign in with their Microsoft.com address, and see the employee edition of Satya’s Hit Refresh eBook automatically provisioned.

Tip o’ the Week 404 – [%subject%] not found %&

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This CONTENT can’t be reached

Tip o’ the week’s author could not be found.

ERR_NAME_NOT_RESOLVED

clip_image002[6]Just kidding!

Time to celebrate the error page most people probably see the most, or at least that’s what you might think. In truth, some years back admittedly, Google suggested than 500 (Internal Server Error) may be the most common. Gotta get a better server, maybe?

An entry in Microsoft’s “Microspeak” archive on the intranet (and some on the outside, too), says:

404

Someone who’s clueless. From the World Wide Web message “404, URL Not Found,” meaning that the document you’ve tried to access can’t be located. “Don’t bother asking him…he’s 404.”

… though instances of “he’s 404” still being used post-1997 are themselves probably non-existent.

Just take comfort that absence exists in other fields too.

It’s one of the better entries in the glossary, still; though not as good as…

PNAMBC

Pronounced “panambic.” An acronym meaning “Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain.” Usually used for demos that look like, but aren’t really, the real product. It comes from “The Wizard of Oz.”

… another one never much used.

If you’re interested in what the other HTTP Status Lines mean, read more here (and it’s actually more interesting than you might think), and for more details on 404, including some of its more controversial uses, see here.

Tip o’ the Week 397 – Bing visual image search

Loyal Microsoft fanbois and grrlz will doubtless use Bing as their default search engine, and many “ordinary” computer users will also stick with whatever their browser or phone apps default to. Even after years of trying, though, Bing is still very much a runner-up in the league of most-used search engines, even if arguably it’s as good or even better than the alternative. Recent stats suggest that in the US, 1/3 of all searches are handled by Bing, so it’s at least in a credible 2nd place rather than a distant irrelevance, as some detractors may say.

clip_image002Even the most persistent marketers have largely given up trying to make the verb “to Bing” catch on, and El Reg reports that Google is trying to encourage “search with Google” in a style guide for developers: ‘Don’t Google Google, Googling Google is wrong’, says Google.

Aside from the beautiful daily home-screen images, there are some neat and sometimes hidden tricks in using Bing.com to search for stuff online.

A little while back, the Bing team launched Visual Search – when you do a search and look at results in Images, click on a result to preview it, and you’ll see a small magnifying glass with a dotted line box around it, in the top left.

clip_image004Clicking on that icon will let you move and resize a box around some element of the image you’re interested in, and below, you’ll see a list of related images to the one you just selected.

clip_image006

Handy for finding out about a specific item in a picture, or a person in a photo, for example.
(Yes, it is, in fact, Kevin Turvey)

This kind of searching is a variant on another approach, where you can either point Bing at an clip_image008existing online image, or upload one that you have on your computer, and it will find similar images to that. The Visual Search UI makes it a little easier if you just want to find out about a part of the image.

Watch out for some upcoming additions to Visual Search – like the ability to recognise faces in search results, for example. Read more about that and other Bing improvements to come, here.

Tip o’ the Week 389 – Jump to Windows Settings

There are many ways of jumping straight into bits of Windows that would clip_image002otherwise take a load of clicking around the place. ToW #312 covered some of them – especially on how to go directly to special folders like your pictures or downloads, but there are many other ways of jumping right into important bits of Windows under the hood.

WindowsKey+R / ncpa.cpl is one of the longest-serving and most useful, going back to Windows for Workgroups; it proceeds directly to the guts of the old-style networking control panel that can still be used to manage and connect to remote networks or configure advanced properties of the PC’s network stack.

Pressing WindowsKey+X shows a shortcut menu that clip_image004gives you quick access to lots of different but handy bits of Windows options and settings – eg. the System page, which gives you easy way to find your machine’s name, what version of Windows you’re using, what spec hardware you have etc. Not stuff you’ll find you need every day, but when you do, this is the easiest way of getting to that page.

Maybe the easiest, but not the most direct – many of the settings pages can also be got at by running ms-settings:name, eg ms-settings:about, which will do the same – either by entering that from the Run command (WindowsKey+R) or by creating a shortcut on the desktop (right-click on the desktop, choose New -> Shortcut) and then enter the appropriate command. Try some other ms-settings: commands – appsfeatures, display. Chere here or here for some more ideas.