Bots explained for non-techies

Recently we’ve been hearing a lot about bots (short for “robot”). In fact, it’s a buzzword found in many technology-oriented articles.

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Those of us who are less technically inclined may be wondering what’s the fuss all about. This is my brief explanation of what’s going on from a non-technical perspective. (Sorry if you think it’s oversimplified, which it intentionally is.)

Bots are most commonly used as front-end automated human assistants (“intelligent agents”). They can be employed to replace humans in customer service roles. For instance, when you go to the website of your mobile carrier or your bank, you will be able to ask the online agent your questions, regardless of your time zone or time of the day. This is so, because your queries will be handled by a bot. And, as we know, bots need neither sleep nor breaks, salaries or social security. Hence the savings for the companies. Hence the rave.

Also, bots can take food orders, call a taxi for you, book a hotel or even offer a diagnosis based on your symptoms (if you’re risky enough). In short, as everything else, bots can be useful, as long as they work right. And not all of them do, obviously, especially if abused.

Tech gurus claim we’ve entered the era of chat bots which comes with the apps decline. Chatbots are easier because they require minimum interaction (remember dozens of menus or tabs you have to navigate through in an app?) and allow voice input.

If you’d like to learn more about what’s hot down the bots’ alley, I’d recommend watching MobileBeat 2016. That’ll give you a good general idea of what it’s all about.

Hope this short post gives you a gist good enough to make sense of all the hype. Of course, that has to do with another buzz, that is A.I., but more on that later.

If you’d like to get a deeper understanding of bots, I recommend reading this series of articles.

Smartphone as an accounting tool

Bean counting is an important issue for us freelancers. We need to be able to see at a glance where we are financially to make a decision under pressure. (For example, this job is slightly below my usual rates, should I take it? The prospect expects a prompt reply. Am I likely to meet my budget for this month without taking the jobs at sub-par rates?)

Some time ago I researched different solutions. None of them are free (except Mint, presumably, which is a Quicken spin-off.)  I looked at HarvestFreshbooks and Xero. I checked Harpoon and Cushion for forecasting. Maybe it’s just me, but all of them seem either too complicated for my needs or too expensive, or a combination of both. 

So I decided to stick with the simplest things, which are often most effective, all the commercial hype notwithstanding.

I think most people would agree that when a tool is touted as something fit for many functions and purposes, in reality it’s not too good for any of them.

In my case, it works best when I have a single tool for every major task. My two major accounting tasks are invoicing and expense/income tracking.

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Photo by Cosma

For invoicing I use Invoice Express on my PC. It’s a software with no extra frills to sidetrack you and does its job beautifully. It has an Android and iOS version, too. You can generate all kinds of reports to see overdue or outstanding invoices, totals for paid and unpaid, invoices by client, invoices by date, you name it. It is also easy to back up and it’s free as long as you’re using it for a business with less than 5 employees. Neat, eh?

For expense tracking and reports, I prefer Google Sheets. That actually covers all bases. I have a separate sheet for income by month by client plus the totals, a sheet for all my expenses and a sheet with the account balances drawn from the first two. (Why not Excel? Excel is possible when using MS Office Online, but historically I stick with Google.)

What I mean is that you want to be able to check and edit your data on your smartphone, too, right? For instance, when you’re away from your desk and you need to see what the balance on that debit card is before you make your payment at the local supermarket. So, Google Sheets works well for the purpose, if you keep your file on Google Drive. Alternatively, you can keep your Excel file on the SkyDrive to be able to access it on your handheld device via a designated app.

I also maintain a separate Excel file for keeping track and building reports of monthly income by month and year. This way I always have a bird’s view of my finances in front of me.

That’s my simple modus operandi, financially speaking. Perhaps, you could share yours and we’d all learn something new and useful. Feel free to share in the comments.

 

 

Smartphone as a reading book

I mentioned elsewhere that modern smartphones are very powerful devices because they’re light and functional at the same time. You can hold them in one hand and swipe the screen with your thumb (if the app allows).

This is truly handy for book reading. I can name at least three apps I use for reading that can be synchronized across your devices. They are Amazon Kindle, gReader and Foxit PDF.

Kindle is great for reading the books you buy on Amazon or send to your Kindle account . The app is very functional and includes day and night modes, highlighting in several colours, adding notes and bookmarks, and can even search highlighted words in Wikipedia and a dictionary (which can be downloaded for free for offline use). It’s very responsive and downloads your book off Amazon. You can set it up to flip the pages using the left-side buttons. Another interesting feature is popular highlights – this shows what most other people marked who read the same book you’re reading.

If you have your favourite book in PDF, that shouldn’t mean you can’t read it. Meet Foxit PDF – a truly versatile PDF-reader. If you thought Acrobat Reader was pretty cool, you ain’t seen nothin yet. From my perspective, the coolest feature of the app is that the documents can be easily scaled in split second by pinching in and out. You can also highlight, comment, add text, notes, draw, sign, use freehand writing and jump to a page. (The best size page for vertical reading is A5, though. But you can always hold your screen horizontally.)

The best app for reading RSS feeds I’ve seen so far is… no, not Feedly. It’s the gReader for me. It is very lightweight, responsive and has such an array of features I’m still discovering new ones. One of the key functions for me is that it can be set up to download and cache posts while on Wi-Fi and turn off synchronizing when on G2. This way it always works fast and you can get updated on the latest news of your industry while waiting for your turn at the barber’s, for instance. By the way, gReader picks up easily all the stuff you have in your Feedly (which replaced the good old Google Reader with varying success) or other common feed readers. All you have to do is add the relevant account on gReader’s first screen. In addition to all the standard feed reader functions (e.g. share, favourite, repost, send to, open in browser, etc.) you can also set it to download podcasts. That’s quite important if you’re more of a listener than a reader.

It would take a long time to describe every app mentioned above in detail, but if you’re looking for simple and effective solutions for reading on your nifty handheld device (on the train, in the queue, in your bed, waiting for your coffee to boil and – shall I say it? – over the potty), these are good candidates that have stood the test of a heavy user like me.

Why should the client care?

You may not believe this, but, unlike LSPs, direct clients don’t give a dime about your memberships in professional organizations. They don’t care about your advanced training or extra qualifications.

Is that surprising? Do you find that offensive?..

When was the last time you checked your dentist’s framed certificates on the wall? And those are on open display, not on the second page of a filed CV…

Clients don’t care about your workflow and credentials. Ultimately, they need to be sure you know and care about their product. They want to be certain you can do a stellar job of localizing their website or offering any other service you can do well. How you’re going to do it is of little interest to them. We shouldn’t think they’re callous, because when we put on our consumer’s hat we’re the same.

So let’s do our best and forget the rest. Let’s do our best to deliver the service of premium quality and spare the client the details of how we do it. With the truly creative types, it’s like magic!

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A magician’s hat every pro wears in their field

Material Design

What I like about our profession is that we constantly learn interesting or fascinating things as we do the research to complete our jobs. My recent discovery has to do with the current Android app interface. It’s most evident representations are Gmail, Google Calendar and the rest of the Google apps. By the way, the interface has a name. It’s called Material Design and is based on the idea of cards. You may have noticed that the screens you navigate to resemble memory cards that change dynamically depending on your tactile input. This input is guided by lines and shadows that prompt you to touch or tick (check) this field or the other. I think that’s based on the brilliant observation how we, humans, interact with devices.

Generally, I must admit that Google, though often criticised, deserves praise for their frequent ingenuity. If you’d like to learn more about Google software design concepts and projects, check this page. Happy browsing!

Material Design

The evolution of palm gadgets

smartphone browsingI was surfing the posts on blogging platforms the other day and came across a piece (posted as a sample, funnily enough) that had this interesting posit: tablets are so popular  because they represent a link in the development of hand-held devices. The end of that chain will be the gadgets of unprecedented power and versatility the size of smartphones and smaller (for what’s crucial is size and user utility).

That made me think of my own experience as a frequent technology user, and I think the guy who wrote it (sorry I lost the link!) could be right. Here’s why.

Once I got a decent Android smartphone (actually, it’s considered a legacy now, I guess), I quit using my iPad mini, though it seemed indispensable earlier. (In fact I’m only using it for ASR now.)

Main reason? Why, a phone is much easier to carry around than your iPad (even a mini one). It’s much handier to use for reading, too, because you can hold it in one hand and flip the pages with a thumb, which you can’t do holding a tablet. It’s always at your fingertips, always ready to take in your thoughts or update you on your emails when you have to be away from your office desk but still want to redeem the time. (In fact, this post was written while I was waiting for my younger daughter to come out of her dancing class.)

All the major tools, from Google Maps to QuickBooks to SalesForce have their mobile apps these days. Unless it’s a major project, you can always make do with a mobile app. Isn’t that incredible – to have all that computing power in the palm of your hand?!

So, for all occasional tasks and personal web surfing, handheld and powerful are the two key words that are likely to guide the evolution of all non-stationary personal gadgets.

Did you notice? (Subscriptions)

You could buy software before. Really buy it, I mean. Lament the expense (or view it as an investment, or both), pay once and it would be yours. For good.

Enter SaaS. Almost every software seller has switched to this new ingenuous scheme: you get the buyer on your hook and you never let him off. Subscriptions.

Before, it was the word reserved for the stuff in print almost exclusively. Today it’s what you see when you go to any website’s Pricing page.

Oh, and that other thing: ‘Only € 2,99 a month (paid annually)’. The part  in brackets – in fine print. 

They used to charge you once. Now they’re trying to bleed you to death.

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SaaS makes me feel like that.