I promise to pay the car park attendant on demand…

Do you remember how, in the old days, before you went on holiday, one of the important tasks you had to do before departure was to get some cash in the local currency? Well, even in this modern era, there are still some places where you need to do that. Cornwall, for example.

We’ve been taken by surprise, as visitors here, by the number of car parks which require payment, and where that payment can only be made with cash. Usually in coins, with no change given, so you really want the exact amount. Now, as someone who hasn’t really used cash for years, this was a minor inconvenience the first two or three times. But I’ve now realised that it’s basically the same everywhere: the Queen’s currency is still vital here; it’s a complex kind of car-parking token. Every single car park has required cash; I think we’ve been to four or five here, and one in Devon on the way down. Today, as a gesture to the 21st century, the car park had two machines. One took cards! Hurrah! It was out of order.

Now this isn’t because we’re in some remote backwater where they’ve never heard of digital transactions. Pretty much everything else, since we’ve left home, has been paid for sans contact using my Apple Watch (which is how I’ve paid for most things in the last five years). And, in fact, in Covid-world, most shops are not taking cash at all, so it’s even harder to go and buy a Kit-Kat to get some change. That’s assuming you can find an ATM from which to get some notes in the first place; they’re not exactly plentiful here.

Since there are a lot of visitors to this part of the world, car park attendants have to spend a lot of their time explaining to people that, no, I know it’s astonishing, but you do actually need cash if you want to park here. No, sorry, there isn’t an ATM here, but there’s one in the next town… Yes, that one you drove past 20 minutes ago on the narrow winding road with occasional passing places.

To be fair, twice in recent days they have come up with alternative solutions for me. “Which is your car? OK, well, give me the change you’ve got now, and if you manage to get any more in the village, you can pay me the rest when you get back.” or “If you call this number, that’s our central office, and they can take a card payment.” Very good of them, but it’s daft that they have to do it.

Today, at Porthcurno, I did call the central office. “No, I’m sorry, we can’t actually take payments over the phone. And we can’t install card machines because they need a phone connection, and there’s no phone coverage there.”

“But you can hear me OK?”

The same excuse was given me in Mousehole. (Yes, that’s a real place name, and a charming place, too, if you can find anywhere to park.) “The phone coverage is too patchy”, said the man by the machine, “so they can’t install machines that take cards.” This is clearly ridiculous; all of the cafes nearby offered free wifi. Is it really the case that card-payment car-park machines can only be connected over mobile networks? And besides, is a live connection back to base really required for a £2 contactless purchase? Or is this, I wondered, just a scheme to provide employment for locals as they go around emptying the cash from the machines?

Anyway, today, I eventually managed to get some cash at the Post Office, and then buy some stamps (another blast from the past) so that I had some coins to pay the patiently-waiting car-park man. Not sure what I’ll do with the remainder: I won’t have any use for them at home.

And then it struck me. Of course! That’s the reason! It’s a ploy to make people get coins which they won’t use at home, so they have to spend them in the local area before they go, thus boosting the local economy. Brilliant!

I expect there’s a Duty Free on the A30 somewhere near Exeter where I can buy some cider before departure. Now it all makes sense.

Excuse me… were you invited to this party?

sheep

Today we’re heading for Cornwall. Normally, that would be a major undertaking, but fortunately, we can see it from where we’re staying.

It’s just over there:

Cornwall

Looks nice, doesn’t it?

Air Power

We’re staying in a throughly delightful B&B in Devon, on a working farm. This is the view from the front door:

Sheep peacefully grazing

Rose was greeted by the welcoming committee in the car park.

We drove down here in our little electric car. We’ve had it now for nearly five years, and have clocked up 30,000 miles, which I realise means we’ve put about eight megawatt-hours through its battery! That sounds like quite a lot, so I should point out that it represents total fuel costs to us of about £20 per month, and in our case that fuel was almost entirely from renewable sources; mostly hydroelectric, with a bit of solar and wind. So for the last five years, we’ve been driving around powered by sun, wind and rain.

One thing that helps with the efficiency is keeping your tyres pumped up to the correct pressure. I carefully did that a couple of days ago before setting off. But I couldn’t help noticing this morning that our very genial host, Rob, was doing the same, but he has a rather more powerful tyre pump than I have!

Holiday wisdom

My friend Richard Morrison doesn’t write on his blog very often, so when he does two posts in one day, I realise that the holiday from which he’s just returned must have been a good one!

Still, one of them is this brilliantly simple observation about the total amount of relaxation one actually gets from a typical holiday:

Lovely.

The other is a recipe for a new cheese he’s invented: Le Condimentâle.

To produce authentic, Condimentâle cheese (appellation d’origine contrôlée) you need a nice warm vehicle and about two months…

I’ll let you read the rest for yourselves

Equipment for recording lectures

One of the big challenges facing lecturers in the University here is that, for at least the next term and probably the whole academic year, all of the lectures need to be recorded. Most of the small-group teaching, practical sessions, and so forth will be going ahead — with extensive Covid-prevention measures in place — but there’s no way we can pack big lecture halls full of people in the way we’ve become accustomed to over the last few centuries, so lectures will all be delivered online this year.

One aspect of my University job recently has been to find and evaluate some of the kit people might want to use for recording, either at home, or in the meeting rooms in the department that we’re equipping for this purpose. (At home, the sitting room has been converted into a recording studio for the 21 lectures Rose needs to get on disk!)

I’ve been making videos of some of my tests and experiments, mostly for internal use, but some of them might be helpful to others. If you should be considering purchasing a USB desk-standing microphone, for example, you might be interested in one of my recordings from yesterday:

I’ve been gathering some of these into a YouTube playlist as well:

Recording Equipment for Lockdown Lectures

I’ll add more there in due course, so do subscribe to my channel if it might be of interest.

Experimenting with a Sony ZV-1 while walking around Barrington

I’ve been experimenting with a Sony ZV-1. This is a compact yet very capable camera, and if I wanted to purchase something explicitly for vlogging, this might well be it. Assuming I wanted to spend 700 quid in the process, of course.

Yesterday, I took it with me while walking the dog, and was really quite impressed. In the process, I produced a video which talks too much about a particular bit of Cambridgeshire for those who are interested in cameras, and too much about cameras for those primarily interested in walks in Cambridgeshire.

I fear the overlapping set in this Venn diagram may be rather small, but it was for my own interest more than anyone else’s; I’ll just put it here just in case there should turn out to be anyone else in that small and exclusive club of South Cambs Vlogging Dog Walkers…

(Most of the audio is recorded using an Instamic)

First experiments with an Instamic

New toy! I bought an Instamic: a tiny voice recorder that I wanted to use in situations where conventional microphones might be difficult or a nuisance, especially when I’m recording with my GoPro Max, which has no facility to take an external mic input.

Here’s my quick first test on yesterday’s dog-walk, in case it’s of interest!

Look through the window!

Today’s very quick tip for improving your video calls.

This one’s pretty obvious, of course. You won’t need to be told this. But perhaps you’ll have a friend who does?

Quentin’s Zoom Webinar Checklist

What are Zoom Webinars?

Most of us are pretty familiar with standard Zoom calls by now, but if you’re asked to organise one with more than a couple of dozen participants, you may wish to make use of Zoom’s ‘Webinar mode‘, where you have a limited number of presenters (or ‘panelists’) and the majority of participants are just ‘attendees’. Attendees are able to watch, listen, and type questions, but are not normally visible or audible themselves, unless you promote them to be panelists too (which you can do on the fly).

Webinar mode is a paid add-on, but if you have a basic paid Zoom plan, you can add it on a monthly basis when you need it. It gives you some extra options like an Eventbrite-style registration system, polls, Q&A chat windows, post-call surveys, the ability to livestream to YouTube, etc. You can find out the details on Zoom’s site. Overall, while there are a few things I would like to change, it works really quite well.

But it is a bit different from a normal Zoom call, and having run a few of these now, ranging from tens to hundreds of attendees, I’ve come up with some tips and a checklist I run through beforehand, and I thought others might find them useful.

This may all look like a daunting amount of preparation, but it needn’t take too long, and going through it can remove a much more daunting amount of stress! If any of these steps does take a significant amount of time, then it’s certainly something you want to find out before, rather than during, your webinar!

Before we get to the checklist, though…

There are lots of general video-conferencing basic tips you can find out there on the web, of course. Things like:

  • Make sure your camera is around eye-level or higher. Laptop users, I’m looking at you! At your nostrils, to be precise. Get yourself a cardboard box.
  • Make sure there’s more light in front of you than there is behind you.
  • Use ethernet rather than wifi if you possibly can.
  • Use a decent microphone (which doesn’t pick-up your keyboard noise). Use earplugs, if your system is prone to echos or feedback.
  • Avoid distracting (or boring) backgrounds.
  • Don’t use virtual backgrounds or automatic blurring.
  • Mute yourself when your microphone isn’t needed.

I won’t go into any more of these because I assume we all know them by now, but make sure your panelists do, too. In fact, if there’s just one tip you should take away, it’s this:

Have at least one trial session!

The trial session should include you, any speakers, and one or two other helpers. You want everyone to know what it’s like to be a panelist, and what it’s like to be an attendee. Things you’ll want to find out:

  • Can attendees take part in the chat? If so, will that distract the speaker?
  • If, instead, you’re using the Q&A window, who sees what and when? Have one of your test attendees submit questions and answer them privately, publicly, or reject them. What do they see?
  • Suppose you want to allow an attendee to say something using audio, how do you do it?
  • How much of this will the speaker be able to see when they’re sharing their Powerpoint presentation?
  • If they have a video embedded in their presentation, will everyone hear its audio?

You need more than just two of you to try this kind of thing out.

You’ll also want to check all of the basic things listed in the previous section for each speaker, of course, and consider whether anything is likely to change. Are they in the same venue, on the same network, using the same machine, and will the lighting be different at the time of the actual webinar?

However, don’t hold your trial session just before the event! You may need to tell your keynote speaker that they’ll need to find a different location because they’re just a silhouette. Or they must borrow a different microphone. Or plug in an external keyboard. Or lock their children in the basement.

We were preparing for one lecture where the trial session was great. Our speaker normally worked from her conservatory/garden room, the lighting was good, and the acoustics were better than expected; everything was ready to go. And then, a couple of days beforehand, I looked at the weather forecast and realised that we were in for a major heatwave on that day! The conservatory was not going to be the right venue after all, and she had to do significant moving of furniture, lighting and equipment (followed, of course, by another trial session to check the new setup).

If your speakers are going to be sharing their screen, test that out in advance with every speaker. A couple of days ago, in a trial session, two of my panelists discovered that they hadn’t done Zoom screen-sharing on their Macs before. They needed to go into System Preferences and grant Zoom the appropriate permissions, then restart the app. You don’t want them to discover this just after you’ve introduced them to the audience.

One last point on trial sessions: when you set up a Zoom webinar, you’ll be asked if you want to enable a ‘Practice session’. This is also useful, but it is slightly different: Practice sessions allow panelists, and panelists only, to connect and check things out and chat just before the meeting starts. All the other attendees just get told that the meeting will begin soon, until you, the host, click the magic ‘Broadcast’ button, and the stage curtain rises.

So yes, you probably want to do a ‘practice session’ too, but think of it as ‘waiting in the wings’, rather than the dress rehearsal. It isn’t the right time for experimenting with what attendees can or can’t see or do, nor is it the time for discovering potential issues that may take longer to fix. That’s why I picked a different name for a ‘trial session’ above: don’t rely just on the practice session unless you and all the presenters have done this together on a regular basis. Set up a separate webinar for your trial, and make sure you use the same settings for the real event. Make sure, too, that your panelists are quite clear about which meeting link is which!

A couple of other tips…

We’ve also learned:

  • Giving the talk, running the meeting, and collating questions are three jobs and ideally need three people.
  • You will get lots of last-minute requests for the meeting link, no matter how many times you’ve sent it out beforehand. Have it to hand at all times. Perhaps create a TinyURL link to it in case you have to text it to someone at short notice.
  • Consider disaster scenarios. What happens if your speaker’s machine or network connection dies just before, or during, the event? For our big important event (a) she had two machines – we tested both of them in advance – and (b) somebody else had a copy of her slides, and we arranged that the speaker could call in by phone to provide the audio if all else failed!
  • Make yourself a checklist. The following might just be some useful starting points.

OK, now is it time for the checklist?

Some of these involve Zoom settings that you can set up beforehand, others can be changed on the fly or during the meeting. In the case of the former, you may need to use the Zoom web interface to make the change; you can’t do everything through the app.

In advance, or at the start while people are taking their seats:

  • Are you recording this? Have you notified everyone? Will you make it available afterwards?
  • Do you want attendees to be able to use the chat? Turn it off if not.
  • Do you want attendees to be able to use/see the Q&A window? Set appropriately.
  • Have you enabled screen-sharing for participants? That’s an option on the host’s screen-sharing menu.

Tell the panel:

  • Turn off your phone. If you still have a landline, take it off the hook.
  • Turn off notifications on your desktop and quit all other apps.
  • Make sure your family and dog know you’re not to be disturbed.
  • Have you made contingency plans so you aren’t distracted if your doorbell rings?

When the meeting starts, tell the attendees:

  • Whether you’re recording the meeting, whether the video will be available, and where.
  • Whether you’re using Zoom’s ‘Raise Hand’ feature.
  • How you’re handling Q&A. “Don’t worry if your question isn’t acknowledged in the Q&A window, or is even marked as ‘dismissed’ – we will have read it!” For one big lecture, we had dozens of questions, and two of us were gathering them into a separate shared Google doc, prioritising and reordering them as the talk was happening, so that we had a sensible list of the best ones by the time the lecture was over.
  • What should participants do if something suddenly goes badly wrong? “If we haven’t reconnected on the original link within 10 minutes, we’ll reschedule the remainder of the session and send you an email with the details.” You don’t want hundreds of people wondering whether they should be sitting there waiting. It’s highly unlikely this will be needed, but it’s the equivalent of telling people where the fire exits are. It’s highly unlikely you’ll need the fire exits either, but if you do, you’ll be glad you told them!

During the webinar:

  • You may want to ‘Spotlight’ a speaker’s video. Normally, Zoom will show the video stream of the current speaker. (Viewers can override this at their end by ‘pinning’ a certain view.) If your webinar is a panel session, you want this auto-switching. If it’s a single speaker, then you should also be fine, because everybody else will be muted, so it won’t switch anyway. However, ‘spotlighting’ the speaker’s video is a good safety measure to stop unexpected switches when somebody’s dog barks in the background after you forgot to mute them!

  • If, at the conclusion, you have questions or discussions involving other panelists, you probably want to switch off spotlighting at that point, so that the other speakers are visible again, and questions don’t come as disembodied voices from the ether.

And finally:

  • Think about how you are going to finish the meeting professionally. Consider the final words you want to be ringing in hundreds of people’s ears as they depart. You don’t want them to be, “Thank God that’s over! Now I need a drink.” Beware the still-live microphones and cameras — yours and the other panelists’ — until you click ‘End’ and you know the meeting is truly over for everybody. Then you can go and get a drink. You’ll have deserved it.

Right, there are many more things I could cover, but I hope that highlights a few things that you might want to consider, especially if you haven’t done this webinar thing before! Have fun, and I hope it goes well!

Sign of the times?

This project at UCLA is such an intriguing idea. And using today’s hardware and software, not too hard to implement.

Round robin

Our friendly neighbour has been back…

He turns out to be particularly partial to small pieces of raisin.

If you ever want to invite a robin round to tea, I can guarantee that raisins will be a welcome accompaniment.

How to confuse foreigners

Small village. One straight road. Two names.

We Brits seem to think this is normal. This is partly why I got confused trying to find a restaurant the first time I went to California, but for the opposite reason.

I was on the right street, at about the right number… but I was in the wrong city.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser