Of colour & whiteboards

I was getting rather depressed by the lack of colour on these pages lately so I delved into my picture archive and pulled out a random picture to brighten it up a little. Especially now that it is Spring.

Close-up of an empty packet of plums on my kitchen table
(A random colourful picture to brighten up these pages.)

I heard the music of an ice-cream van out in the street just now. And did you know that it is a principle of Japanese cooking that a balanced meal is one that has twelve different colurs in it?

Which in a very round-about sort of way brings me to something that I’ve been thinking about for a little while. Those of you who work in offices might be used to a procedure called “hot-whiteboarding“. This is a term used to describe the collective establishment of an abstract idea using marker pens on a glossy white board mounted on the wall of a meeting room, or if you’re that way inclined, luckily on a wall near your desk.

The procedure usually starts with someone going up to the whiteboard and then (a) picking up a marker pen and taking the top off (b) smelling the tip for a second (c) drawing a little line in the corner of the whiteboard (d) rubbing out said line with finger. If the line smudges instead of wiping off clean then it’s a flipchart pen, which you put to one side then you go back to step (a) with another pen and curse the person who mixed the flipchart pens with the drywipe ones. If hot-whiteboarding is a really popularly practised procedure in your office then step (c) will often result in no line at all – or else a line so faint that it is illegible from any practical viewing distance. In which case you go back to step (a) and repeat the process until you find one that works. Sometimes you get people who bring along their own, highly-treasured, packet of multi-coloured drywipes to the meeting – and then take them away at the end of the meeting and lock them up in their desk-side drawer. That really annoys me that does. In my opinion this practise is an unnecessary inhibitor to the spontaneous, creative process.

If the hot-whiteboarding session has been a productive one then the end result will be a highly-crafted and pruned work of art. If you’re unlucky, you might be the one who has been volunteered to own the action of staying behind at the end of the meeting and transcribing the whiteboard into Word or Powerpoint for later distribution to the meeting attendees (apols for the use of office jargon!) You’re really unlucky if you haven’t got one of those scanning whiteboards that automagically prints the content of the whiteboard onto a piece of paper at the touch of a button. But you are really lucky if you have one of those “smart” boards that you can plug your laptop into and it dynamically keeps a picture of what’s on the whiteboard on your laptop as an image that can be sent to everyone without haste at the end of the meeting. Otherwise you just resort to having to stay behind and painstakingly reproduce the contents of the whiteboard in your Black and Red day book with that really smart stationery-cupboard gel pen that you never really use. Or if you’re in a hurry to get to your next meeting you just write a note in the whiteboard saying “Please do not wipe!” and come back later hoping that nobody has. However, these days, the work-smarter types are more prepared. They take pictures of the whiteboard using their digital camera or their mobile phone and then distribute the images by email to the attendees later – or else upload the images to Flickr and send the URL around to everybody like these people have done.

Well I came across something really neat the other day. It’s called ClicktoScan. With this web app you take a picture of the whiteboard using your mobile phone and email or MMS it to ClicktoScan. By the time you get back to your desk a PDF of the image will be waiting in your inbox, or you just login to your ClicktoScan account and download it from there – or better still – if you are not in your office (e.g. in your client or supplier’s office) then you can have the image sent to your nearest fax machine for printing – right from your mobile phone. Now there’s a useful use for a fax machine – and you can gaurantee there’ll be one in every office somewhere just waiting there, desperate to be used. Or you can have any combination of any of the three.

And the really neat thing about ClicktoScan is that the software in their systems does a load of clever processing on the images sent to it, like removing any dark background noise from the image, sharpening the letters in words, unwarping the edges of the image and adjusting the contrast so that the resultant image you get is actually very readable. Exactly what you want.

And what’s more, taking pictures of whiteboards is not the only application. With your mobile cameraphone you could use it to get readable images of anything that you cannot easily take away with you, wherever you find yourself with the need to capture something with words or lines on it – e.g. restaurant menu cards, instruction leaflets for electrical appliances when you go shopping, location maps outside train stations, campus maps, snippets from articles in magazines that you read in WHSmith that you can’t be bothered to buy etc. etc. In the old days this would have been the stuff of spymasters and their tradecraft. Now it’s in the domain of anybody with a mobile phone and access to the web. Which is just about everybody these days. Just one thing though – the results are better if your camera is at least 1.3 megapixel and has reasonable focus.

And the ClicktoScan service is not constrained to images taken from your mobile phone either. You can email images from any source to ClicktoScan. So for example you could use any digital cam, get the images onto your PC and email them. Although the proposition has greater value to mobile phone users due to the fewer number of steps taken to get the end result. And best of all – it’s free (for now). Except if you do send from your mobile phone then you will incur your usual GPRS/3G data transfer charges to your network operator.

Missed the bus

Have been travelling by jet-plane more than I have by bus lately. I’m not really too keen on flying. Really. Having done far too much in my lifetime so far, I’ve had my fair share of “plane travel horror” experiences, and like almost everyone I know, have shared at least one of the horror stories with friends and colleagues.

Admit it: almost all of us have a story to tell about flying don’t we?

My dislike for flying can be traced back to one particular short-haul journey between Belfast and London during the mid 1990s. I had spent the day working in (what was then a very “war-torn” and nerve-wrackingly full of military checkpoints) Belfast and was returning on an early-evening flight back to Heathrow. It was winter. There was a storm. It’s only a 45 minute flight. No sooner had the plane reached the top of its climb to cruising altitude, it was on its way down for descent and final approach into Heathrow. It was during this phase of the flight that the storm really had its effect on the plane. The plane started shaking violently. The seatbelt light came on suddenly. The crew were asked quickly to strap themselves in prematurely. And the nervousness in the captain’s voice was evident over the PA system as he pleaded this request. Seconds later all hell broke loose: the crew hadn’t had any opportunity to clear away the used food trays and drinks etc. So when the plane started to get tossed around in the wind there was food and drink *everywhere*. It was a frightening experience. I have vivid memory of a moment when the plane just seemed to DROP for several long minutes – my stomach being left behind somewhere in the sky. I thought I was going to die. And judging by the screaming of everyone else on the plane, I wasn’t alone. When we eventually landed safely the rain was torrential and you don’t know how thankful I was toward the pilot and crew for getting me back on the worshipful ground. Which indeed I could have worshipped at the time. I was completely oblivious to the rain as I walked back in a daze to my car parked in the long-stay car park. I was just happy to be on the ground and vowed to never fly again. Of course, I did fly again. But not without everlasting trepidation.

Nowadays I’m a little more relaxed. But only a little: I’m the one person on the plane who likes to keep an eye what’s going on. My sense of awareness is multiplied ten-fold when flying. I watch for everything. I pay lots of attention to every little unusual noise, and every little flexing of the wing, and every little wobble in the movement of the engines. I just know that I will be the one to report something unusual to the crew if something looks alarmingly untoward. I am most tense when the plane takes off, and I hold my breath when the wheels of the plane hit the runway on landing. You don’t know how much the effect of the “Ladies and Gentlemen: welcome to so-and-so” announcement has on my mental psyche as we hit the ground and taxi down off the runway. You can call me a paranoid flyer.

There have been many occasions when on the final approach into Heathrow I spy the tiny little buses and cars on the roads around the airport and just wish I was down there instead.

Dull. Rainy. Window Seat. Wing view.
(I find BA are really patronising, and I am really missing my bus.)

Barcelona a few weeks ago. Athens last week. Madrid the next.

It was snowing in Athens during the two days I was there. Not sleety snow, but full on slow-big-flakes-drifting-to-the-ground snow. My taxi driver from the airport to town did not know how to get me to my hotel in suburb of Kiffisia. Somehow he managed to persuade me in very broken English to get into the front seat and navigate him to the destination using his Athens equivalent of the “A-Z” map book. This wasn’t so easy, but I was grateful for the A-Level maths that I studied years ago – as this helped me decipher the correspondence between the form and pronunciation of some of the Greek letters e.g. lambda, theta, kappa etc. We built up a bit of a rapport along the way, and during our sometimes very bizarre conversation I asked him what was the Greek for “Thank you”. And even more bizarrely, he asked something like “You know the Japanese for thank you?“, and rather bizarrely I said “Why yes: Arigato” – and he said “Well in Greek it is very similar; it is Efharisto!”

And like Barcelona: I must be easily passed as a local Athenian, as during my stay there I got approached a couple of times by people wanting directions or something or other and had to explain in some way that I did not speak Greek. This made me feel a little ashamed really.

And I’m really missing my bus.