Category Archives: General

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.

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!

Two-one, two-one, two-one, two-one…

The people of Liverpool are celebrating, after their football team beat Manchester City yesterday and so reached the top of the Premier League, for the first time in thirty years.

Now, it might surprise regular readers, and those who know me now, to discover that I used to be a Liverpool supporter!

The little town of Ware, where I grew up, wasn’t close to any major football-playing city. I think Tottenham Hotspurs probably counted as our most local team, but it seemed impossibly far away, and there was no particular reason to go to Tottenham. There never is, as far as I can gather.

So in the playgrounds of my youth, the kids claimed allegiance to a wide range of different teams, and I realised that I was going to have to come up with an answer to the regular question, “Who do you support?”. Pointing out that they meant “Whom” clearly wasn’t achieving the desired results. But I was an observant child, and it was immediately apparent that if you responded to that question with the name of a losing team, it resulted in jeers and humiliation. Why would anybody want that? In the 70s, Liverpool seemed to be winning everything, so I decided I was a Liverpool supporter, and life was better, though I was still stumped when they asked, “Who’s your favourite player?”. I don’t think I could name any of them.

-–

I’m not sure when I last actually watched a football match on TV. It certainly wasn’t in this current millennium; but I do vaguely remember seeing a couple of matches of the World Cup in the early 90s, when we were staying with friends who were enthusiasts. And it was an enjoyable experience, partly, perhaps, because I did feel some engagement: I had an opinion on whether England should beat Germany, when I would have had none about the relative merits of Aston Villa vs Manchester United.

I haven’t really had the time to watch any other sports since, I don’t think. (Except the Boat Race, of course – that goes without saying.) Still, all of this history is in some small way commemorated by the fact that I feel glad that the people of Liverpool have been celebrating, though I hope they maintained their social distances while doing so.

Thirty years is, after all, quite a long time to be ridiculed in the playground.


Update: John Naughton pointed me at Simon Kuper’s very readable piece on Why Football Matters. Recommended.

Those little avatars are actually quite useful

Yesterday, while on a video call, I fired up Twitter to check something, and amongst the stream of inconsequentialities, something jumped out at me: a tweet, just half an hour before, from my friend Lucy Jones saying that her father had died that morning, and how devastated she was.

I was shocked, not least because Lucy was actually on the call with me at that moment. I gasped, and was about to express my deepest sympathy and apologise that we were bothering her with trivia (while secretly wondering, a bit, why she still looked her normal cheery self in the little video window?)

And then I realised that there was something a bit strange about the tweet, and as I peered more closely at the avatar/icon, I realised it didn’t look at all like Lucy!

Well, it turned out that it was actually a retweet, by a friend of mine, of a post by a different Lucy Jones. He only knew one Lucy Jones, I only knew one, but it turned out we knew different ones, and Twitter had injected his Lucy’s news into my news stream. All of which would have been terribly confusing if it hadn’t been for the photos the Lucies had uploaded to their repective Twitter accounts.

So please, people, unless you are blessed with a particularly unusual name, do make sure your online accounts have a useful avatar associated with them. And no, a picture of you as a lovely bouncing baby doesn’t count: it’ll only be recognised by your parents and they’ll probably know whether or not it’s you. Especially if you’re announcing their sudden demise.

P.S. Lucy’s name has been changed.

Passing the buck the right distance

Here’s something I don’t quite understand. It’s the responsibility of the National Health Service to provide a health service to the nation. Presumably, things like the sourcing of PPE, the purchasing of ventilators, the arranging of tests, and even, to some degree, the deployment of diagnostic phone apps, is their area of expertise. It’s what they do.

Now, these are not normal times, of course, and there’s always the complaint about insufficient funding, past and present. But I doubt that’s valid now since, presumably, the government would now happily write bigger cheques for the provision of these things. So I’m slightly intrigued that the NHS is complaining that the government isn’t providing them, rather than the other way around! Intrigued, though not surprised.

Now, clearly I’m missing something, because everybody else seems to think the government is responsible for medical supplies too. It could be that PPE supplies are primarily delayed because of something like customs and excise rules, in which case, yes, clearly the government is culpable.

Or it could be that the NHS is saying, in effect, “you underfunded us for years, so now that we have a big problem, it’s actually your problem! So there!” Government departments are presumed to be more competent at logistics than the NHS, when both are given sufficient funding, so we’d better hand it over to you, even though we’re the ones with the contacts and the contracts.

But I think it’s probably that the boundary between the government and public services is a sufficiently blurred one that, if you are senior enough in the NHS, your job title begins with ‘Minister’ or ‘Secretary of State’. This is very convenient, because it means that anyone who wants to complain about how things are going — to increase the ad sales in their newspaper, for example — can make it a political complaint, which is acceptable and even popular, rather than be seen in any way to be criticising the NHS, which would be suicidal.

So that raises the interesting question of where the boundary of blame can sensibly be drawn, while maintaining political correctness. Everyone is allowed to blame the Prime Minister and nobody is allowed to blame a nurse; so where does, and where should, the buck stop between the two?

To the extent that some people believe the UK Covid response has been badly handled, how do we hold the correct public institutions, or individuals, accountable when it comes to be reviewed? When the next health crisis comes along, should we expect the health service to handle the provision of health-related services, or the political party currently in power at that time?

I don’t know anything about the management hierarchy involved, but I’m guessing that, as you ascend it, you reach a point where the payslips no longer have an NHS logo on them; where NHS administrators become civil servants. A bit higher, civil servants become short-term political appointees. Are either of these the correct point for rational people to start assigning blame in the case of unforeseen medical emergencies? Should it be higher or lower?

68 snacks of wisdom

Kevin Kelly, on his 68th birthday, offers 68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice. And they’re good. Or amusing. Or both.

You don’t need to read the whole thing. Just scroll to a random point and read something. Then repeat for the next 67 days 🙂

More good analysis tools from the FT

I’ve talked before about some of the nice statistics the Financial Times is gathering about the epidemic, and the clear dispassionate way it’s presenting them.

Their latest tool gets more interactive, and lets you compare, in various ways, how your country is doing against others. I like three things about this in particular.

  • Firstly, you can choose a linear scale. Log scales are handy for scientific visualisation but are harder to grasp intuitively.

  • Secondly, you can get the numbers per capita, which I think is much more useful than absolute figures, though it doesn’t of course take into account population density, which is also important.

  • Thirdly, when you get the analysis in a form you like, you can capture that in the URL and send it to others: the inability to do that is a common problem in today’s over-Javascripty pages!

So you can do your own investigation and see that by some measures, your country is doing fairly well (cumulative cases compared to Spain):

And by other measures not so well (daily new cases compared to France):

You don’t have to switch countries to get different viewpoints, though. Suppose you wanted to make the case that the UK and France were pretty much neck-and-neck, you’d plot the absolute cumulative deaths on a log scale:

(Neither of these capture the fact that France has less than half the population density of the UK, but they’re still useful illustrations.)


Here’s another example:

Let’s display the same data about the UK and Italy in two different ways.

Do you want to make the UK (or its government, healthcare system, population, whatever) look reasonably good? Plot the cumulative cases.

Does your editorial policy or personal preference dictate that you want to make the UK government, healthcare system or population look bad? Then plot the same data as a daily rate (roughly the gradient of the above graph).

That’s the same data over the same period on the same kind of axes.

All of which illustrates why it’s good to have a tool where you can explore the data yourself. As long as you really do explore it and don’t just stop when you get the conclusion you want!

In the above examples, the images are links to larger versions: the links in the text take to the FT site where you can experiment to your heart’s content.

Documentary evidence

Today I was applying, on behalf of my department at the University of Cambridge, for an educational discount on some software.

The form on the website asked various questions, and included an obligatory upload section: “Please provide documentation supporting your institution’s accreditation status”.

So I sent them this:

It is, apparently — for I must confess I didn’t read it carefully — “a charter in the form of letters patent of inspeximus and confirmation by Edward I to the Chancellor and Masters of the University of Cambridge confirming the privileges of the University granted by Henry III, and an agreement between the Scholars and Burgesses for the punishment of disturbers of the peace by a representative group from both sides”. It dates from 6 Feb 1291, and it’s worth looking at it on the University Library’s web site, where you can zoom right in and see the lovely illustration in the top-left corner.

Anyway, the company granted us the academic discount. Probably wise. You wouldn’t want to upset Edward I. Remember what he did to the Scots.

Why do you have a ‘Knowledge Base’ on your website?

Question 1. Which of the following are indicated by having a ‘Knowledge Base’ on your company’s ‘support’ pages?

  • (a) A lack of the discipline needed to write proper documentation.

  • (b) Insufficient staff to provide proper support.

  • (c) Inadequate engineers to provide a reliable product.

  • (d) A poor user-interface experience in your product.

  • (e) All of the above.


The best thing about creating a website in blog format, I’ve always thought, is that you don’t need to maintain it to nearly the same degree as you would most other sites. Why? Because everything has a date, and that date is paramount; it is clearly marked. This makes it obvious to the reader that a post was written in a particular context, and, while the content may still be useful some years later, you can’t blame the author for not being able to predict the future if it’s no longer accurate or relevant now! As an author, therefore, you don’t need to be constantly re-reading, deleting, updating, clarifying, as you would with most other forms of documentation.

The appeal of the so-called ‘Knowledge Base’ — a searchable database of support articles on a company website — is that it also promises an alternative solution to this challenge of maintaining structured documentation, but instead of using old Father Time to winnow out inaccurate material, it uses a search engine to help you ignore it.

If you force your customers to type things into the Knowledge Base search box before you let them get anywhere near the page with your phone numbers or email addresses, there’s even a chance they may find out the answer to their question and not bother you! Bliss!

What’s the problem?

Search engines are wonderful things, of course, and this isn’t a bad idea in theory, but if your experience is anything like mine, these knowledge bases are chiefly a source of frustration for customers.

Why is this?

  1. Users don’t know what to search for. They may not know the phrases you use internally to categorise certain issues. A human support person would know that when you said you had an issue with your mouse, you might be referring to a problem labelled ‘trackpad’ or ‘cursor’ in the docs.

  2. The articles aren’t well-indexed. Do you, for example, make sure that the error message the user actually sees appears in plain text in the articles, so the search engine has a chance of finding it? Do your articles have extensive tagging with relevant keywords which may not be in the text? If the error is slightly different because they used a different filename, will it still be found?

  3. The search engines aren’t good enough. We’ve been spoiled by Google. Does your search engine understand synonyms? Does it rank pages well? Does it show a good summary so your users don’t have to read all 26 articles returned by their query?

  4. The content is outdated. If the user actually succeeds in finding a relevant article, is it clear that it only refers to version 4.2 of the product running on Android, and not version 5.0 running on iOS, because the latter didn’t exist at the time it was written? Will they know that the solution it proposes can’t possibly work for them? Because this advice is buried in a database, it may be harder for your support staff to know this is a problem.

How to fix it!

I have four pieces of advice for anyone who has, or is considering implementing, a Knowledge Base on their website:

  1. Make sure the full text of your knowledge base is searchable by Google. They will do a better job than you do.

  2. Allocate more, not less, in the way of resources, if you want your documentation in this form. Knowledge Bases are not like blogs. You can’t dump things in there and forget them. Articles need to be reviewed, re-written, re-indexed, re-keyworded and regularly purged if the contents are to remain useful. You need to do this in addition to writing the actually text itself. Customers will not thank you for anything which suggests you believe that their time is much less important than yours. If they have to search through dozens of articles to try and find an answer, it probably indicates you aren’t doing your job. There may be good reasons for using this format for your documentation. Cheapness isn’t one of them.

  3. If you insist on putting your users through this and they still contact you, you should provide better support once they do. For heaven’s sake, don’t just connect them to somebody in a remote location who only has access to the same information! Don’t offer a chat link to somebody who is ‘Very sorry to hear about your problem’ but knows less about it than they do. Connect them to the engineers who produced the flawed product, or the writers who produced the inadequate documentation.

  4. This is the key one: The bigger your Knowledge Base, the worse job you are doing. In most situations, an entry in your Knowledge Base indicates a failure in communication elsewhere. Insufficient documentation, unhelpful errors, unreliable products. Your users won’t generally be consulting a Knowledge Base if everything is going well for them. Treat it as an issue-ticketing system, and reward those whose work means that articles can be removed from it. And make sure you have the processes in place that this actually happens!

In the beginning…

My family are a constant source of useful information. My nephew James tells me he’s just discovered that it’s ‘World Design Day’. (He’s a designer and nobody had mentioned it to him before now. Shocking, eh?)

Anyway, this is another nice episode in what is rapidly becoming a theme on Status-Q. We started with The International Year of Planet Earth, then moved on to the discovery of Earth Day, but World Design Day surely has to be the most ambitious. I mean, where do you start?

Well, I guess you might begin with ‘Let there be light…’?

The Liar Tweets Tonight

This is just brilliant…

The Biggest Event You’ve Never Heard Of?

In a slightly-related follow-up to my recent repost from the archives…

Yesterday, apparently, was ‘Earth Day’. I missed this fact — you may have done so too — but, unlike my brother, I had actually heard of it before, so I knew it wasn’t a marketing ploy by vendors of topsoil and compost. But I thought it was some one-off hippy jamboree back in the 90s.

However, it turns out to be a regular and international thing, which has been going on about as long as we have! He only found out about it because it was included in his Apple Calendar. He went and Googled it, and sent me a link.

Gosh, the ways we find out about things these days, eh? Other people put them in your calendar, and you have to go and look them up to find out what they are. Whatever next?

Anyway happy (belated) Earth Day, everybody! You’ll know for next year…

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser