Podcast, anyone?

I've been toying with the idea of doing a podcast for a while now. The two considerations, as I see them, are (a) having something to say that people will want to engage with, and (b) having a technical set up that makes it easy to create and publish a podcast.

I've decided to put the cart before the horse and look at the tech side of it first. (It may transpire no one will ever want to listen to what I have to say, but at least I'll know how to do it even if no one cares!).

As a starting point, I've been looking at the Anchor app. It seems like a relatively simple place to start: it's an app on my phone that lets me create, edit (kind of) and publish a podcast. All from my phone! I'd say that within about 10 minutes of installing the app, I had recorded and published my first cast, which the app can push to iTunes and most other podcast syndication systems. The content of course is not up to much, as it's just a "getting started, trying things out" kind of episode, but the tech seems easy to use.

What I like about Anchor is that other users can "call-in" to my station, which means they can leave a voicemail message (up to 1 minute) for me. I can then choose to publish that, with a response, or reply directly with a voicemail of my own. You could think of it as an audio version of twitter, in a way.

A new addition (in the last week or so) to the functionality of Anchor is video. This essentially transcribes your audio into a rolling subtitle type of video which I guess would be a good way to share podcasts via something like Instagram. I found that I had to edit about 25% of the words, which was probably due to my accent and speed of talking. If the episode was more than a couple of minutes long, that could be a tiresome pursuit. Here is my first attempt at this:

As far as what exactly I'll do with the podcast, I have no idea! I'll experiment a bit more with Anchor first and then try out a few episodes to see where it takes me.

You can find my podcast on iTunes at this link, or just do a search for "As I Was Saying" in your favourite podcast app.

Short review of Autodesk University, London

Inside of Tobacco Dock, Wapping Lane, London

For the first time ever, Autodesk University took place outside of the United States this year. The venue was Tobacco Dock in London, on 21st and 22nd June. These were two incredibly hot days, and the open air parts of the venue were very popular!

The opening keynote address was a very impressive start to the conference, and it reminded me of a scaled-down version of an Apple WWDC or launch event: plenty of energetic music, fantastic big screens, slick presentations and even some whoops from the crowd. The tag-line for the event was “The Future of Making Things”, and one of the most impressive presentations in the keynote was about the concept (and indeed practice) of generative design: this is a shift in design approach from where the machines/computers are a tool to be manipulated by humans, to where the machines actually come up with the designs themselves and the human involvement is primarily to say “yes, I like that design, make that one for me.” In a well-rehearsed section of the keynote, Chris Bradshaw interacted with a voice assistant (“Echo for design”) with commands in an exchange that was seriously impressive. You can watch that section of the keynote here (from 1:04 to 3:15).

In a matter of minutes 10,000 floor plans options were generated by the machine without any physical human involvement. (Aside: bye-bye architecture as a profession?)

It was a very impressive display of what they called “generative design”. And just to show that it is not all drama and no substance, they showed the chassis of a sports car that a computer designed (and manufactured) by itself based on observed data obtained from a human-made chassis which had hundreds of sensors built in. The computer version had just as much structural integrity, but came out 20% lighter based on its design. Slightly less impressive, but an equally good example of such generative design, there was a chair on display at the venue that was designed and 3D printed by a computer working alone.

Over the 2-days there were so many break out sessions available (with some interesting ones overlapping, unfortunately) that it would be a disservice to try to capture the whole thing in a short post. However, two things stood out:

Firstly, AutoCAD is going nowhere soon. There is much talk of Building Information Modelling (BIM) in the construction industry lately, and within that field practitioners tend to think of high-level 3D modelling using very advanced (and cool!) tools such as Revit Architecture, Civil 3D and Navisworks. Well, if the break-out sessions are anything to go by, the “lowly” AutoCAD still has plenty of life left in it, and Autodesk does not look like getting rid of it any time soon. I find that AutoCAD is an excellent entry point into computer aided drawing, and it forms part of the first year learning on the Civil Engineering degree that I teach on.

 

img_0644

Secondly, the hands-on sessions were a highlight of the conference. In particular, the session on Photogrammetry was excellent. Using the Autodesk “Recap” application and nothing more fancy that a smartphone camera, you are now able to generate a 3D point cloud model of any scene. The video below shows a model generated from about 600 photographs taken using a drone-mounted camera. The results are very impressive considering the low-level of technology required (I’m thinking here about a comparison with laser scanning where the hardware alone could be in the region of €50,000-plus).

 

Whilst the video above shows a complex point-cloud generated from 600 drone captured images, we also got the generate a 3D point cloud ourselves, based on about 150 images taken of a site using just an iPhone. This is what captured my attention: here we now have the technology in our pockets to create (reasonably accurate) 3D models of areas we can photograph. Naturally, the “heavy-lifting” is done in the Autodesk servers online, so it does take more than just an iPhone, but there is no need for any new hardware costs. This is probably the biggest takeaway from the conference for me, and I’m looking forward to trying out Recap with my students.

Overall positives:

  • The venue was excellent, I’d look forward to going to another conference there.
  • Fantastic networking opportunity.
  • AutoDesk staff were friendly and knowledgeable.
  • Plenty of vendors in the exhibition area, with a good variety of offerings.
  • The hands-on lab session was a highlight.

Overall not-so-positives:

  • Gaps between talks were too long, which was frustrating considering many of the ones I wanted to see overlapped. These could have been spaced out a bit more, in my opinion.
  • Arguably not enough hands-on labs and sessions.
  • Whilst the exhibitions and vendors were interesting, there was little reason to interact with them on Day 2, as the gaps in the programme left enough time to see everything on offer in Day 1. The logistics might be difficult, but having at least some different things on offer on Day 2 would have added some value.

(Photos and video all my own)

Mastodon Apps

Okay, so Mastodon has been around long enough for a number of interesting apps to have emerged. There are so many, in fact, that choosing which one to use takes a bit of time and effort. To help me decide which app is best for me, I made a list of features that are important to me, and compared my options against that list. This is a rudimentary approach and does not capture all the features and nuances of every app out there, so this post is a reflection on my own experience only. 

There are a few other caveats, too:

  1. I am sharing my own personal views, and with anything like this, personal taste may sway you in a different direction to me.
  2. I do not own an Android device, so the apps included here are based on what are available for iPhone.
  3. The apps below are current versions of what is available right now: newer versions of existing apps and completely new apps will no doubt come along in time.
  4. I am running a public beta version of iOS (10.3.3) and so some of the apps below crashed during testing. I have chosen to ignore when an app crashed, given that it was probably down to my iOS version.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, here’s what I think:

For starters, I am going to cut a legitimate (in my view) corner with this review……I am eliminating apps that include adverts and/or are not free. I know this puts a limitation on what I can write, but I see this as a justifiable approach: I have a fundamental problem with apps that include adverts, and moving away from that model is one of the things that makes Mastodon attractive in the first place. I accept that developers have costs to cover, and in time I would be open to paying for a Mastodon app. I have done so in the past for really good quality Twitter clients, so I am not adverse to it. However, I see Mastodon as being so new (and therefore the apps have some room for improvement) that at this early stage developers should be more interested in trying things out and fine-tuning to make a great product instead of trying to make a quick buck of the back of the audience Mastodon is gathering. Sure, when the apps are great, no harm in charging a small fee for the app, but right now? No, I don’t think that’s appropriate.

Right, the currently available free apps that are in the iTunes store (Ireland version) are  (in alphabetical order):

  • 11t
  • Amaroq
  • GON
  • Mustor
  • Ore2 (has adverts)
  • Oyakodon (has adverts)
  • Pawoo
  • Toot!don (has adverts)
  • Tooter (version 1.1.0 does not seem to function, possibly a beta iOS issue)
  • Tootle

There are certain features that are “must-haves” for me.  Different users will have different wants, and may have different views on what they see as essential (I have marked mine with a * in the chart). Having spent the past two months switching around between apps (primarily Amaroq and Mustor), and the past few days re-visiting the others, I can summarise my findings as shown in the table below:

MastoApps

There is no grand conclusion here, other than to say there is no single app that has all the features that I would like to have. I do not intend to criticise any app or developer, the views in this posts are just my own opinion. 

So what app am I using, then?

Well, I’m actually using 2 different ones. I use Mustor and Powoo. Neither one ticks all the boxes, but a combination of the two is the best option for me right now. I can delete notifications and copy/paste text within Powoo, two things that if Mustor could do, I’d probably just use Mustor. I’d like a light theme too, but that’s nice, rather than essential, to have. 

Over time I am sure that the apps will mature and this chart may become out of date as soon as I publish it. So, I see this as a starting point and I will revise as things develop.

What would you add to the wishlist of features? Have I missed an app that should have been included? Have I misrepresented what a listed app can/cannot do?

As I said, this is just a starting point, so please feel free to get in touch with your thoughts/suggestions.

 

Thoughts on Mastodon

Around about last Christmas I started thinking more deeply about social networks, and in particular the way that Facebook has changed over the years. By that point I had been on Facebook for about 8 years, and I was beginning to get fatigued by it. The initial usefulness of it was wearing off, and changes to the way the timeline was being generated meant that I was missing some posts and seeing lots of adverts. In January of this year I deleted my account.

I still use Instagram and Twitter, but there are privacy issues and advertisements with those as well, so perhaps my days are numbered there too.

So what next?

Enter “Mastodon”. There are plenty of articles you can read to find out more about what exactly Mastodon is, such as the official FAQ page, this Wired article or this Medium story written by the founder of Mastodon . What I’m sharing here is more of a personal reflection: what I think of Mastodon. I have been an active Mastodon user since early April 2017.

Utility

For me, a social network has to be useful. We all have our own way to define usefulness, but in my case what I mean is that it has to centre on conversations where all involved can offer and gain from the exchange. This hinges on there actually being people on the network to begin with. There are not many people on there yet (comparatively speaking): currently just over 116k users according to these stats. Twitter currently has 328million active users. This is a double-edged sword in the sense that there are not as many people to interact with, but then the timeline is less noisy and the posts tend to be more worthy of a read than a swipe-past (quite often feel that I am missing stuff on Twitter when I don’t check-in for a while and then find there are 250 new tweets since I last looked at it). I have had meaningful conversations on both Twitter and Mastodon over the past couple of months, but these are easier to find on Mastodon for sure.

Function

Mastodon functions like Twitter in the sense that it is micro-blogging to a timeline that others can read. There are big differences, though. Firstly, the ‘micro’ is less micro: you are allowed 500 characters. I have found this to be a sweet spot: no need for 1/3, 2/3, 3/3 any more. It is still short enough to reign me in, but long enough for convenience. Secondly, each post has its own privacy setting, unlike Twitter. I have set my default to “Public”, but for any particular posts, I can chose the extent to which it is shown, right down to “private” (which is essentially the same as a DM in Twitter). I like this granular approach as it puts me in control more easily.

Privacy

Just like Twitter, if you make a Mastodon post “public”, it is searchable and anyone can see it, even if they are not a Mastodon user. So, in this sense, Mastodon is not private, but you know what you’re getting into. In terms of data privacy, well, it’s a little muddier I think. The way it works, you sign up to an “instance”, which is a decentralised host service run by, well, anyone that wants to run one. So, you are beholden to the intentions and actions of the host. This is another distinguishing feature of Mastodon compared to Twitter: with Mastodon, you have to trust that the server admin is well intentioned and will not do anything sinister with your data, whereas with Twitter, you KNOW they are doing stuff with your data. The ‘unknown’ aspect is a concern of mine, so you know what? I contacted the admin of the instance I’m on and a public conversation took place with others joining in. He was very up front about the cost involved in hosting, his motivations for starting the community, and his commitment to not share any data and to simply provide a space for others to communicate and share ideas. I seriously doubt that this type of conversation could have happened with the CEO of Twitter had I tried reaching out on that platform. There is an openness to Mastodon which is very appealing. And no ads!

Switching instance

About a week ago I decided to move to another instance. This wasn’t because of any concerns over the intentions of the instance I started out on. It was because when I signed up originally, I chose one at random without really knowing what I was doing. As it transpired, the one I chose was one of the bigger ones (mastodon.cloud), so the local time line was filling up very quickly with posts from people I wasn’t following. (You can chose to only show a timeline of those you follow if you like, but I wanted an even cleaner approach). Switching instance is easy: just export the list of users you are following and import that into your new instance. But be warned: you cannot bring your followers to the new instance automatically so you have to leave a signpost on the old instance saying “come and find me at my new home”. I decided to make the switch at this stage because I did not have that many followers, and it was pretty easy to regain them on the new instance. If I had a lot of followers (again, a relative term, but for reference I have about 400 on Twitter), it would have been a tougher decision to make as I would have run the risk of losing a number of them.

Pro tip: if you’re going to do it, the time to move instance is early on!

Mastodon or Twitter?

I missed out on the early days of Twitter (I joined in 2011, but didn’t really get stuck in until 2013), but I get a sense that Mastodon is a bit like those early days on Twitter: there aren’t many others on there, and even though those that are there are familiar with micro-blogging, from what I’ve read most of us are still a bit unsure of exactly where Mastodon will take us. I read this great piece by Doug Belshaw on why he is not returning to Twitter, and I have to say I agree with what he says. However, I still see Twitter as a valuable place to be for me personally and I don’t think I am ready to pull the plug just yet. I have built up a following on Twitter that I can’t justify walking away from: a diverse bunch made up of friends, colleagues, professional contacts and celebrities that I enjoy interacting with. Right now, Mastodon cannot offer me that broad level of interaction because most of the people I follow on Twitter just aren’t on Mastodon (yet!). So for the moment I am going to keep a foothold in both camps to see how things develop. The benefits of Mastodon, as I see them, include longer posts, greater control over post privacy, no advertisements, an open approach to ownership, and a clean chronological timeline. Whether or not all Twitter users (eventually) see these benefits, only time will tell, but for now, Mastodon is definitely worth checking out and keeping an eye on.

If you want to find me on Mastodon, you can go to the scholar.social instance at this link.

 

 

 

Upcoming Events

June is going to be a busy month. As well as completing the tasks involved in wrapping up the academic year, I have a couple of trips to look forwards to.

On 20-22nd I’ll be in London at the Autodesk University conference. I believe this is the first time that the conference is being held outside the USA, so it’s a big deal. The conference itself consists of lots of sessions dealing with most of the Autodesk software solutions, so it’ll be a busy couple of days trying to get round to see everything.

To find out more about the Autodesk University event, follow this link.

Then on 26/27th I’m off to Brussels for the European Badge Alliance conference in the European Parliament. This conference focuses on the use of digital open badges for mobility of learners throughout Europe, and includes a session on how to set up a framework for badges. Should be interesting!

To have a look at the programme for the EBA event, follow this link.

I will post a full review of each event as soon as possible.