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 392 – distract with GIFs

clip_image001We’re all used to file formats being associated with programs and the data they work with. Some, like .TXT, have been around for so long and are so cross-platform, they transcend association with any one application, whereas .PPT will always be PowerPoint – though that app has gained notoriety in such phrases as “Death by PowerPoint(which we’ve all been subjected to, even if not completely fatal), or “PowerPoint Karaoke(reading out the words on slides without adding anything).

One long-used file type goes back to 1987, the GIF – standing for Graphics Interchange Format, predating the eventually prevalent JPEG format by 5 years. GIFs were relatively poor quality – only 256 colours could be used; 30 years ago, that wasn’t an issue but in recent decades, it’s more limiting. Most people, however, will be familiar with GIFs due to a sub-variant – the Animated GIF. This is a series of frames which are played like a simple video – with low frame rates & no sound, yet they have occupied a niche in the way people use the web.

clip_image003Applications tend not to render animated GIFs well – Outlook, for example, simply inserts a static image, but browsers do show them properly. If you have an email in Outlook that you know has animated GIFs, look for the Actions submenu on the Message tab and select View in Browser.

Adding animated GIFs to chat applications is a good way of making a clip_image005point more vociferously than with smilies… though it can be even more distracting. Skype (the consumer version) added some featured videos (with sound), but both Yammer and Teams have added GIF buttons to make it easy to seach for amusement from online animation repository, GIPHY.

clip_image007clip_image008Try pepping up boring Yammer groups or Teams sites, by looking for the GIF logo on the message box, then searching for a 2-3 second loop that underlines your point. Just make sure the content is suitably Safe For Work or you may find the consequences of sending jokey GIFs to be less than ideal.

Facebook has the same kind of thing on comments boxes, from a variety of sclip_image010ources and also not entirely SFW.

Finally, Outlook.com has unveiled a new beta mode that is available for some users (& rolling out to more – look for a “Try the beta” toggle switch on the top of your Hotmail/MSN/Outlook.com mailbox) – and one feature will be animations that can be easily embedded in mail.

clip_image011clip_image013The “expressions” feature lumps emojis & GIFs together to make it simpler to annoy your recipients.

Read what Thurrot has to say about the other bits of the beta.

Tip o’ the Week #198 – 22 minute meetings

clip_image002Hot on the heels of last week’s How 2 rite English proper tip, and the previous extensive Outlook appointment duration code-a-thon, here comes a simple yet entertainingly effective idea to think about whilst you’re digesting all the over-indulgence of the Christmas period (Merry Christmas, by the way) – if you need to meet in person, why not hold shorter, more engaged and more effective meetings?

clip_image003OneNote program manager Nicole Steinbok delivered an award-winning internal Microsoft presentation, blaming inefficient meetings (in part) on the 30-minute blocks that Outlook defaults to.

Apart from the usual stuff like starting on time, having an agenda, etc etc, there are some great bits of advice for having better meetings – some which everyone knows but nobody follows…

· Stay standing up

· Close all laptops

· Silence all phones

One director in MS UK had a Lync status message, “I try not to IM in meetings, preferring to focus on the people in the room – if really urgent please do text me”.

Perhaps not as fundamentalist a stance as the 22 Minute Meeting method, but definitely a step further in the right direction than most people take.

Proud Canadian Nicole also spoke at an external event called Ignite – improving productivity 5 minutes at a time. It’s well worth watching both this and the internal one.

For more info, there’s a Facebook group now, at http://22minutemeeting.info/.

Tip o’ the Week #197 – When to use apostrophe’s

Grammar and punctuation fundamentalists (the Basterds!) will almost certainly have read Lynn Truss’ (or should clip_image001that be Truss’s… discuss…) seminal book on why punctuation is so important.

The title highlights the difference adding simple punctuation makes to a term said of a Giant Panda, that it “eats shoots & leaves”. Add a comma after the first word, and the same bear becomes a postprandial, gun-toting evacuee.

Misuse of most punctuation doesn’t have quite the same dramatic effect, but it may signal (to some people, at least) a lack of attention to detail, therefore invites ridicule. None more so than using the prolific Grocer’s Apostrophe.

Kingsley Amis, on being challenged to produce a sentence whose meaning depended on a possessive apostrophe, came up with:

  • Those things over there are my husband’s.
    (Those things over there belong to my husband.)
  • Those things over there are my husbands’.
    (Those things over there belong to several husbands of mine.)
  • Those things over there are my husbands.
    (I’m married to those men over there.)

There’s a simple rule when wondering whether you need to add an apostrophe or not – if in any doubt, just leave it out. Jess Meats circulated a now-dead website a while ago – www.canipluralizethatwithanapostrophe.com. Visiting the site displayed a blank page carrying just the word NO. In 96pt Arial Bold.

If you’re not really sure of the rules or if you find you forget them a bit too easily, check out The Oatmeal’s brilliant graphical guide for when to – and perhaps more importantly, when not to – use an apostrophe. There are other wordsmithery wonders too – how to use a semicolon, some words you need to stop misspelling, who vs whom and more. Genius. And really, really funny too.

clip_image002

Tip o’ the Week #187 – A Route for old times

clip_image002Once upon a time, a company called NextBase wrote some software to help people plan routes across the road network, using a computer. It was expensive in the day (£130 in 1988 works out about £300 in today’s money), but if your job was to schedule travelling reps or delivery drivers, then time was money. Or money was time saved.

Anyway, Microsoft bought the company and brought out Microsoft AutoRoute in the UK (eventually renamed Streets and Trips in the US) and did a modestly brisk trade selling annual versions of the software for a more reasonable (£40 or so) amount, with updates to keep the maps fresh and to add improving functionality.

All of this pre-dates the arrival of Multimap, Bing Maps, Google Maps etc. Nowadays the man in the street can make routing decisions on browsers or phones, free of charge and even taking account of prevailing traffic conditions, generally free of charge.

Nevertheless, the AutoRoute and S&T products soldier on, surprisingly. AutoRoute 2013 can be bought for £39 naked or £85 if you want a plug-in USB GPS module. MapPoint and Streets and Trips are still available for American users. Just don’t try and stick the PC to your windscreen.

The zooming in & out is a big agricultural compared to the Deep Zoom style navigation in and out of Bing or Google Maps these days, but there’s a lot of data behind the app and it’s very usable when it comes to searching and setting particular options – showing how much your journey will cost in fuel as well as how long it will take, for example…

Why?

There are a few key reasons why it makes sense to have AutoRoute instead of relying on online mapping – it’s all available offline for one, it responds comparatively quickly (especially when rerouting via specific places) and it also can show you easily what’s in the neighbourhood of a given point – though some of the data may not be as up to date as online sites.

You can export *.axe routing files to *.gpx using AutoRoute 2013 (or use free 3rd party software ITN Converter to turn out a version for most popular satnavs – so you could spend a while poring over a pan-European route in clip_image003AutoRoute then squirt it down to your TomTom so you end up following the exact route you want, rather than sticking to the motorways, as the device might insist)… though as yet no route mapping is exportable to Nokia’s Here Drive software so you can let your phone guide you.

Interestingly, you can also overlay further data onto AutoRoute maps – maybe Excel spreadsheets full of postcode-oriented data, or even the simple mechanism of plotting all your Outlook Contacts on a map – maybe useful for seeing which of your customers or partners are based nearby a place you’re going. Or where to wind up the windows and keep driving…

Tip o’ the Week #120 – The colour of time

clip_image001This week’s tip is a lovely little Windows app, recommended by Ceri Morris.

It’s a little like the sunrise alarm clocks which start your day by gently lighting the room, or the sleep alarms which gradually fade out the radio instead of a sudden silence in place of music.

This free application, called f.lux, changes the colour temperature of your Windows PC’s display,  based on what the time is. Once the sun goes down, it starts to change the bright white of your Windows backgrounds to a nice soft glow, with the intent that your eyes will adjust to the softer lighting system when you’re looking at the screen in the evening.

Ditto, early in the day, the less harsh, less bright white screen will be more soothing on the peepers first thing, and that will be altogether better. It’s possible to over-ride temporarily, if you’re doing work that is colour-sensitive (like photo editing etc), and you can preview the effect so when you install the software, you’ll be able to see what it looks like throughout the course of night and day.clip_image002

Thousands of comments on the f.lux website list people saying they’re sleeping better since their evening PC use with f.lux helps their eyes relax before settling down for the night. If work/life balance is a problem for you, then maybe you should stop using your work PC in the evening… but if you do need/want to use a computer after the sun goes down, give this tool a try and see how you get on with it.

Check out the site to install F.lux – http://stereopsis.com/flux/ – It’s really rather good.
Now, go to bed!

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

clip_image001

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!

Snipping tool for OneNote users

Following on somewhat from my off-topic Walking in the Country post, I thought I’d recount one useful tip that helps in grabbing the maps (or any other screen content, for that matter . at least anything that isn’t rights-protected).

If you have OneNote installed, press WindowsKey+S to initiate a snapshot, just like the Windows Snipping Tool. OneNote 2007 snaps the selected area of the screen into an unfiled note, and you can copy/paste the content from there to whatever application you like.

OneNote 2010 – which will be included with all versions of Office 2010 when it’s realeased later this year – even has the option of just copying the content to clipboard right away, rather than putting it into a OneNote file first.

image

OneNote is a great app which has a devoted set of followers out there – many Heart it, apparently.

Going for a walk in the country

I know it’s been a bit quiet in recent weeks here, but I figured I could chip in the now traditional New Year random post, which might of interest outside of the working day. Here’s last year’s post on how to wash you car.

During the Christmas and New Year holidays, I’ve been doing a bit of walking – going out for a few hours in the countryside, occasionally taking in the odd pub en route, that kind of thing. Over the last few months, I’ve come across several invaluable aids to finding and navigating some great walks.

If you search online for “walking in <name of area>”, you’ll probably find plenty of links to ramblers associations or other groups wanting to tell you about or sell you access to maps and documented walks. Ditto, there are thousands of books with details of walking in the UK . and very good I’m sure they are too.

I discovered the AA’s web site to be a particularly great source of free info, though – the walks are usually very well documented . though they make no sense when you’re reading them at the PC, they make perfect sense when on the walk itself (instructions like “walk along the edge of the field to a style, then cross the next field and two styles to a metal gate, turn left and cross a bridge to another field” don’t make for easy imagining, but when you’re at the edge of the field looking at the styles, it’s just right).

The AA “Walks and Bike Rides” site

Have a look on this site and see what there is in your neck of the woods. It’s been a brilliant source of inspiration for us. What I normally do, though, is to take the text from the AA site and copy/paste into a Word document – set the margins nice and tight, paste the text in with giant font size and copy/paste any maps they show from the AA page. and it’s easy to print out double-sided on a sheet of paper or two and take it with you on the walk.

image

What’s really got me out of trouble a couple of times, though, is Bing Maps. The most recent revamp includes the ability to display Ordnance Survey maps data (in the UK) as an alternative to Road & Satellite maps. Simply go to your favourite destination and from the “Road” drop-down, you should be able to view OS Landranger and OS Explorer maps (depending on your zoom level – if the OS option is grayed out, try zooming in or out to see what happens). image

Ordnance Survey Explorer maps are great, listing all manner of bridleways, byways, rights of way etc. But manhandling an A2 sized bit of folded paper when out and about is a bit cumbersome. these Bing Maps let you copy just the bit you’re interested in, and if you paste into your Word document, you could even have the OS version of the map on the back of the AA map & directions. Perfect.

image

I’ve also got a Windows Phone device which has the Bing for mobile available – and since the device has a GPS, it can show aerial views of where we are currently. Manually cross referenced with the OS maps, it’s got me out of trouble on more than a few occasions – knowing we’d missed some turning on a designated path, but been confident enough of making it back to the path just a few hundred meters ahead. I hope some future version allows the showing of real OS maps on the mobile screen . now that would be sweet.

Have a play with the OS features on Bing Maps – it’s truly brilliant, and might teach you a load of stuff about your own manor.