Category Archives: General Stuff

Happy day: Windows Outlook now supports Focused Inbox

A few weeks ago I complained about the Focused Inbox feature. A big part of my complaint was that Windows Outlook didn’t support it. This morning, I updated my Windows Office installation and found that the Focused tab magically appeared.. sort of.

First, how I got it: I was already signed up for the Office Insider program, and my tenant is enrolled in Office 365 First Release. My Office installation showed up with “Current” instead of “Office Insider Fast,” though (to check yours, click File | Office Account in any Windows Office application). For some reason, on my unmanaged, non-domain-joined Windows 10 machine, this setting periodically resets, so I launched regedit and changed the value of the UpdateBranch key under Computer\HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\office\16.0\common\officeupdate to “Insiderfast”, relaunched Word, and checked for updates. After a few minutes of coffee break, the updates had downloaded. When I launched Outlook, I got the pop-up telling me that Focused Inbox was active.

This leads me to my “sort of” comment. This installation of Outlook has 3 Exchange Online accounts, 1 IMAP account, and a dozen or so shared mailboxes in its default profile. My home robichaux.net account is default. All 3 Exchange Online accounts are on tenants where Focused Inbox is available, and all 3 show the appropriate UI in OWA and Mac Outlook. However, only my work account shows the Focused tab; the other two don’t. Relaunching Outlook didn’t fix this, nor did rebooting, nor did waiting a while. At this point it isn’t clear if having only a single Focused Inbox is by design, a bug, or a temporary limitation. However, I’m happy to see the feature appear at all.

This must be a very new change, as the Outlook 2016 update history doesn’t include it as I write this. Perhaps Microsoft will update it soon to explain more about Focused Inbox support.

 

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Havana, day 4

(If you’re wondering what happened to day 3, that was race day. See the race report.)

I woke up the day after the race still feeling like a pile of garbage. “I didn’t eat much yesterday,” I reasoned. “A good breakfast will fix me up.” With that happy thought in mind, we headed out to the Parque Central hotel, where our Airbnb host alleged we could get a delicious buffet for 15 CUC.

A digression about money in Cuba. There are two currency systems in the country: “CUC” and “CUP” (formerly known as MN, for moneda naciónal). CUC is for tourists, CUP is for citizens. This is a practical restriction, not really a legal one; citizens are free to use CUC if they get any. The exchange rates for both are fixed; 1 CUC equals USD$1 equals a little more than 24 CUP. There are a few important things to know about Cuban money:

  • US-issued debit and credit cards cannot be used. This is thanks to the US economic embargo. Cards issued by banks in other parts of the world work just fine. That means if you want money in Cuba, bring it with you, because you won’t be getting any while you’re there unless you use Western Union.
  • As far as I can tell, no one in the US changes CUC. You can’t get it at the Atlanta airport or any of the online currency exchanges I found. There are currency exchanges at the Havana airport but you’re better off finding one in town. Many hotels have them, but Eric took us straight to one inbound from the airport.
  • There’s a 10% penalty when changing USD to CUC. In our case, we saved about 1.5% by buying Euros and then changing them to CUC after our arrival. However, when you change CUC back to USD, there’s no penalty.
  • Prices for many things are quite low by US standards– you can get an excellent meal with drinks for 15 CUC, for example. However, hotel rooms and taxis are not particularly cheap, nor are cigars.
  • I found that I could comfortably get by on about 80 CUC/day for meals, transportation, and incidentals. That doesn’t include lodging. If you eat less, drink more, or do more tourist-y stuff your mileage may vary.

Anyway, back to the buffet. The other guys all loaded up huge plates with omelets, ham, pastries of various sorts, and all kinds of other goodies. I picked at a hard-boiled egg, a couple of pieces of ham, and a roll… I just wasn’t hungry and was still feeling queasy and dizzy. Despite that, the two very strong cups of Cuban coffee I had were quite welcome.

Our next stop was Museo de la Revolución. Napoleon’s aphorism that history is written by the winners was clearly the inspiration for this museum, which is just as propaganda-heavy as you might expect. It’s housed in the former Presidential Palace, and many of the original furnishings and decorations are intact, as are the bullet holes generated by the armed band of students who attacked the palace as part of the Cuban revolution.

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Evidence that this was formerly the Presidential Palace

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View of the interior courtyard

As you might expect, the exhibits focus heavily on the revolution and its aftermath. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are extremely prominent; Camilo Cienfuegos, who was really the true military mastermind behind the revolutionary army, gets relatively short shrift. I learned that he died in a mysterious airplane accident in 1958, shortly after the revolution. The exhibits are all labeled in Spanish but only a few have English translations, and those are mostly poor in quality and too brief to accurately capture the detail of the Spanish versions. Sometimes the propaganda quality was just over the top– the “Corner of Cretins” is a good example. The small plaques thank each cretin (Batista is the fourth, off to the left) for various things. The entry for George H.W. Bush says “Thank you cretin for helped us TO CONSOLIDATE THE REVOLUTION.” I mean, come on, guys, at least get someone who can conjugate verbs to help you write your insults!

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Cretins’ Corner

Interestingly, the museum itself contains three small shops selling random tourist crap. Not very revolutionary.

The ground floor has a small and well-hidden cafe where we stopped for a drink. This led to the highlight of my visit: reading the entries in the comment book the museum maintains for its visitors. I wish I’d taken pictures of some of the comments– there were people from eastern Europe writing (in beautiful English) that having the exhibits labeled only in Spanish was dumb; there were Australians and Canadians asking why the museum didn’t make a bigger effort to explain what was so bad about the pre-revolutionary Batista government, and one person (I think from Australia?) who said “Why are you selling Nestlé products in the cafe? They are the definition of imperialist devils!”

After the museum, I skipped lunch and went back to the apartment for a badly needed nap. When I awoke, everyone else had made it back and we all spent time washing our race stuff and hanging it to dry on the terrace. While this was going on, Anita, our housekeeper,  and her friend Rita were cooking us a Cuban dinner of slow-cooked chicken stew with pineapple, rice and beans, salad, and fried plantains.

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From L to R: Warren, Rita, Anita, Craig, and Julio

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Yes, I ate the whole thing

It’s true, I was very hungry at this point, but I have to say that this was the best meal I had while in Cuba, and one of the best I’ve ever had anywhere. The chicken was tender and flawlessly seasoned; the pineapple was naturally sweet, slightly caramelized, and a bit spicy from being cooked with the chicken, and the beans were perfectly cooked and seasoned. I had 3 plates worth and then had to quit before I damaged anything.

Our plan for the night was to go to FAC– Fábrica de Arte Cubano, basically a super-powered art gallery and party space. It’s only open Thursday through Sunday from 8p to 3a, so this was our last chance to go. We wanted to have drinks on the rooftop bar at El Cocinero, which is next door. However, when we arrived, we found the bar closed due to plumbing problems. That turned out to be OK; we got in line about 715 but by 730 the line was down the street and around the corner. FAC admits only 800 people each night, so if you don’t get there early, you might not get in.

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The FAC line

We stood in line chatting with other visitors, including a couple from Montreal who told a funny story. They were staying at an Airbnb owned by a Canadian and his Cuban boyfriend. Non-citizens can’t legally own real estate in Cuba though, and of course the Cuban government doesn’t permit gay marriage. How was that possible, I asked? “Oh,” laughed the Canadienne. “The Canadian married his boyfriend’s mother, and the apartment is in their names.” Nice workaround!

We paid 2 CUC for admission and got drink cards– to buy a drink, you show your card and the bartender marks it, then you provide your card at the exit to pay your tab. (Lose your card and it’s 30 CUC!) There are six or seven bars inside FAC, along with a large performance space, a video gallery, and wall after wall of art exhibits. The best way I can describe the overall vibe: noisy crowds of tourist hipsters. I’m not really an art person, and I tend to walk through art museums at a pretty brisk clip, so I didn’t really see anything that made a huge impression on me. (There was a nice gallery of small pictures of zebras chasing laser pointers, though.) The big attraction was being able to sit outside on the roof in the warm Cuban air talking with my friends and hipster-watching, but eventually I started getting more and more tired and decided to punch out and head back to the apartment.

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Lance marks the spot

I was awake for maybe 15 minutes once I got there– and getting there was an adventure, not because of the taxi we took (which was fine) but because of the stairs! My quads were still trashed from the previous day’s race and so I couldn’t make it up even half a flight of steep Cuban stairs without having to stop to catch my breath. Humbling.

 

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Havana, day 1

My first “you know you’re in Cuba when…” moment was the customs agent wearing fishnet stockings. Before that point, José Martí International Airport in Havana looked mostly like any other airport terminal. As we got in line for customs clearance, though, I noticed that all of the agents were female, and most of them were wearing uniforms that were considerably shorter and/or tighter than I’d expect to see on a TSA agent. Then Warren pointed out Agent Fishnets and I knew: I was someplace really different.Clearing immigration itself was very straightforward: I turned in half of my tourist card, had my picture taken, and was cleared out into the baggage claim area. Our bike boxes eventually appeared on one end of the terminal and our bags on the other, and we proceeded to the declaration line. No one inspected our bags.. well, except for the TSA.

Outside immigration we met Eric, the driver that Tony had arranged to pick us up. He had an immaculate gray 1952 Plymouth coupe for us, or at least for 4 of us, plus a friend with a van to take the other 2 of our party, plus all 6 bikes.


 Eric gave us a well-narrated tour through Havana, which simultaneously looked exactly like I thought it would (lots of classic cars, plenty of exhaust, bright colors, crumbling Soviet-era buildings) and nothing like I thought it would (packed streets, thriving businesses, a fair number of new-looking Chinese Geelys and other cars). Then we went by the big stadium, featuring this sign hailing Fidel as the “permanent inspiration of the best athlete” and showing him in various uniforms. 


Eric expertly navigated us to the Airbnb we’d reserved, “Casa Hendrik.” I can’t say enough good about this place– when I write the review it deserves I’ll post it here. Hendrik was a marvelous host and the apartment was perfect for what we needed. It doesn’t look like that much from the outside but had two marvelous terraces with a view of the water. This photo shows the view from right outside the door of my room, where there was a small porch, looking down onto the 2nd floor terrace; you can see water in the upper-left corner.


Next to the rocking chair is a small cage with two birds. Why? Because Havana, I guess.


The photo shows Craig and me on the top-floor terrace, which is reachable by a tiny and completely unsafe concrete spiral staircase. No handrail, nothing on the outside other than a 30-foot drop, and a stair pitch and size completely incompatible with size 13 feet. So of course I went up there as often as possible. 

Hendrik introduced us to Tia (Spanish for “auntie”), the 95-year-old woman who lives on the ground floor. Her vocation is neighborhood coffee lady, so whenever we needed a shot of her coffee, which tasted like what they must drink in heaven, we’d go see her. Little cups packed a big punch.


Lance quickly started putting together bikes on the tiny front porch, gathering a fair amount of curious stares from passers-by. Our neighborhood had a number of other casas particulares (private rooms that the owners are allowed by the government to rent), along with small shops and so on. It was a good mix to give us a taste of Cuban life.

For dinner, I’d asked Hendrik to make reservations at Paladar Torreson. Paladars are licensed private restaurants, often located in people’s homes (as this one was). Dinner was quite good; for about $12 US I had a plate of 3 small lobster tails, bread with an excellent hummus-like spread, arroz Moro, and a (watery) Cuba Libre.

  

Best of all, the paladar overlooked the Malécon, Havana’s famous waterfront road, so we got to people- and traffic-watch while we waited for the sunset… which was spectacular.


After dinner, we went to walk the Prado, one of the main drags in Old Havana. Most of the big tourist hotels are near there, as is the National Grand Theater and the Capitol building. It was crowded with skateboarding kids, strolling lovers, tourists, locals, and the occasional street dog.

This is a building whose name I forgot to write down:


And here’s the Hotel Inglaterre:


After the Prado, Craig and I went back to the Malécon to look for some of the famous wifi parks. We found some but couldn’t get them to work… more on that in another post.

One final note. Cubans are absolute masters at making stuff work with very limited resources, as evidenced by the light in our bathroom. There was a nice wall-mounted finial, but someone decided to add an LED can light… so they did. An angle bracket, some wire, and a plastic bag to wrap it in… done!


I hit the bed exhausted but intrigued by what we might see the next day. I was not to be disappointed.

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Test of my Havana setup

This is a simple test post to see how well my planned tech setup works. I’m typing this on a Logitech K380 Bluetooth keyboard, with my phone in a Stump stand. Wifi and cellular data are turned off. Here’s an embedded picture:


Why am I doing this? Well, Cuba doesn’t have much of an Internet infrastructure, both by design and by lack of investment. There are public wifi hotspots operated by ETESCA, the national PTT, and a functioning cellular data system. However, wifi access is limited to about 200 hotspots nationwide, and roaming data on AT&T is $2.05 per megabyte. My plan is to write blog posts and email while offline at la casa, then find a telepunto to upload and download once a day or so. I’ll still be able to send and receive ordinary texts and phone calls, but I don’t plan to given the expense. 

It’s an open question which real-time communications will work– I’ve read that consumer Skype and FaceTime are blocked, and that WhatsApp works. I don’t know about Signal, Facebook Messenger, or Skype for Business. My working assumption is that I’ll be reachable through at least one of these methods while I’m in wifi coverage, but if you really need to get a hold of me, use email.

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2016 in review: my reading list

Inspired by my mom, last year I started keeping a list of the books I read throughout the year. (See 2015’s list here). This year, I did the same, and I’m publishing it now in case anyone out there needs last-minute gift suggestions for a reader on their list. As with last year, I’ve added a brief summary for most of the books. Unlike last year, I’ve separated the books into categories, including a new “top 10” category. Although my list started in chronological order, unlike last year’s, it’s more or less random now.

Top 10

  • Boys in the Boat tells the story of the team that captured the Olympic men’s rowing medal at the Nazi-run 1936 Olympics. I never cared about rowing as a sport before. Riveting.
  • The Hybrid Athlete: the bible for concurrent strength and endurance training
  • Tyler Dilts‘ “Long Beach Homicide” series: A King of Infinite Space, The Pain Scale, A Cold and Broken Hallelujah, and Come Twilight. Superb writing and resonant, memorable characters.
  • Don Winslow’s two novels about the Mexican drug cartels, The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, are epic, almost literally (they aren’t poems, but they chronicle a hero’s journey). Except the hero is more of an anti-hero. Not light reading by any means, but rewarding.
  • Stephen King‘s Bill Hodges trilogy: Mr Mercedes (excellent audiobook, if that’s your thing), Finders Keepers, and End of Watch. This is King’s best stuff in a while— on a par with 11/22/63. King gives a master class in plotting, dialogue, and characterization throughout the 3 volumes.
  • Being Mortal: a difficult and thought-provoking read. Summary: we all die, so how can we make that process less wrenching for ourselves and our families?
  • Frozen in Time: combine the story of a doomed World War II bomber crew struggling to survive in the Arctic for months and the effort, 60 years later, to find their crash site, aircraft, and remains. Masterfully told.
  • Dave Hutchinson’s Europe trilogy: Europe in AutumnEurope at Midnight,  Europe in Winter. If you liked Gibson’s The Peripheral, you’ll love these. They’re far too rich and complex for my poor summarization skills to do them justice. Just read the first one, and you’ll see what I mean.
  • Redeployment: Phil Klay’s incredibly hard-hitting collection of short stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should be required reading for everyone who’s ever put an “I SUPPORT OUR TROOPS” magnet on their minivan.

Nonfiction

  • You Are An Ironman: inspiring, but ultimately formulaic, chronicle of six athletes who train for the 2007 IRONMAN Arizona race. Still worth reading.
  • The Next Hour: The Most Important Hour in Your Logbook: if Richard Collins writes it, I want to read it. Not only is he an excellent writer, he is an extremely experienced pilot and this book taught me a great deal.
  • Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats: a memoir that juxtaposes the story of the author’s family disintegration and the growth of Rocky Flats… and the terrible pollution that followed.
  • Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman: a classic. I wish I could have met Feynman.
  • Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany: I know a reasonable amount about aviation history, but until I listened to this book, I had no idea about the realities behind the bomber war in WW II. I am now doubly thankful for men like my grandfather, who flew and fought in an environment few of us can even imagine.
  • Thinking Pilots’ Flight Manual: interesting and useful collection of magazine columns. Some of the material’s not relevant to me (I won’t be landing ski-equipped airplanes any time soon) but there’s a lot of good stuff here.
  • Doper Next Door: summary: ordinary athlete starts testosterone replacement therapy. Hijinks mostly do not ensue. The author comes across as a self-involved man-child.
  • To Hell on a Fast Horse: meticulously researched history of the real story behind Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. Pretty much everything I thought I knew about those two turned out to be wrong.
  • The Red Circle (audio): memoir of a Navy SEAL sniper. Tiresomely self-promotional and overall not nearly as good as I was hoping.

Science fiction

  • The Cat Who Walks Through Walls: one of Heinlein’s final books; sadly not as good as I remembered it
  • Farmer In the Sky: a Heinlein juvenile that holds up quite well 50+ years later
  • Imhotep: surprisingly enjoyable… think “A Connecticut Yankee In Pharoah’s Court”
  • Crux: terrific, complex thriller with tons of plot twists
  • Fold (audio): this narrowly missed my year’s top 10. I wish the protagonist were a real person so we could hang out.
  • Written in Fire: final volume in Sakey’s “Brilliance” trilogy. Superb.
  • Exigency
  • Going Dark: third volume of the Red Trilogy
  • Chains of Command: for my money, Marko Kloos writes better military science fiction than anyone else since Joe Haldeman
  • The Forever War: hasn’t lost any of its bite since its debut. People will still be reading this book in 50 years.
  • Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight, Dead Man’s Debt: Can’t pay your student debt? Join the military to work it off. Not as good as Kloos but not bad.
  • Ctrl-Alt-Revolt: skip this. Now I know I don’t need to read any more Nick Cole books.
  • Slavemakers: what if there’s an apex predator that threatens humanity’s survival? Gripping.
  • The Black: mysterious deep-sea life form emerges, starts tearing stuff up. Nice mix of horror and tech.
  • Flex: “interesting” is the right word to use here.
  • Year’s Best SF: a mixed bag. Three stars at best. Loved some of the stories, while others were super tedious (if I never see another Aliette de Bodard or Kelly Link story in this anthology, I’d be delighted).
  • Dave vs the Monsters: Emergence: completely implausible, featuring a crude and unpleasant anti-hero. Birmingham is a better writer than this would indicate.
  • Dave vs the Monsters: Resistance: worse than the first one.
  • Anomaly: more like a philosophy lesson than an SF book.
  • Something Coming Through: if aliens appeared on earth and said “we’re just here to help,” would you believe them? Should you?
  • Windsweptsurprisingly enjoyable tale of a labor organizer on a faraway planet. She’s a badass.
  • Extremes: tedious second novel in the Retrieval Artist series. Liked the first one, but probably won’t bother with the others now.
  • Stalin’s Hammer: Paris: novella set in the “Axis of Time” universe. Good, but too short.

Thriller / spy

  • The English Spy (audio): Silva never disappoints, and the narration on this is terrific.
  • The Fall of Moscow Station: I hope Mark Henshaw writes more books, and very soon. Terrific spy thriller.
  • The Wolves: Berenson’s yearly John Wells thriller. Reliably good.
  • Darknet: meh
  • Little Sister: if James Bond were a hacker, this might be a Bond novel. Enjoyable but lightweight.
  • Unforgettable: what if a weird quantum effect made it impossible for anyone to remember your existence? You could be a spy. But you probably couldn’t have a girlfriend. A clever idea, well executed in this book.
  • Tier One: a decent thriller, if predictable.
  • Ghost Fleet: naval and cyber war with China. Not nearly as good as I was expecting based on its hype. Poyer’s two Lenson novels dealing with the same topic are far better.
  • Traitor’s Story: a deceptively quiet but clever book
  • Disciple of the Wind: Steve Bain’s latest “Fated Blades” novel. Just as good as the others.
  • The Low Bird: novel of USAF pararescue operations in Vietnam. Quite good.
  • Onslaught: Navy Captain Dan Lenson and USS Savo Island are back on the job. Excellent depiction of battle at sea in the modern Navy.
  • Red Sparrow: very good debut by a former CIA officer. I look forward to more from him.
  • Lights Out
  • Hard Road

Mystery / crime

Other fiction

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Nifty new auto-vacation feature for Outlook on the Web

This is a great example of Microsoft bringing useful innovation to end users by deploying new features in Office 365:

Outlook on the web now makes it easier to clear your calendar and automatically decline meetings before you head out for some time away from the office. When you set an automatic reply in Outlook on the web, Outlook will offer to do the following on your behalf:

  • Block your calendar so people know you’re away.
  • Clear existing meetings on your calendar by declining/canceling them.
  • Automatically send a response to incoming invitations while you’re away.

Of course, Outlook and Exchange have long had the ability to automatically send an out-of-office (or “OOF”, from “out of facility“) message when you specify the dates when you’ll be away. These new features extend the traditional OOF behavior by adding some business logic to the OOF process– after all, when you’re out of the office, it is logical to assume that you won’t be accepting appointments during that time, and that you want new invitations to be automatically declined. (There are exceptions, of course, which is why you can turn this business logic off.) I’m not in love with the fact that this feature requires you to set your  works in Outlook on the web, but I’m hopeful that it will make it into other versions of Outlook at some point.

Apart from the specifics of this individual feature, it’s really encouraging to see the Outlook team invest in innovation like this. Given the large feature gap between Outlook on the web and Gmail (the only real enterprise competitor to Exchange/Outlook) it would be easy for the Outlook team to coast. Part of the ethos of building software at cloud speed involves iterating rapidly, and that in turn means sometimes you build something that turns out to get a lukewarm reception because it’s not as useful as first thought. (Tony argues that this is the case for Outlook’s support for likes and @ mentions.) However, sometimes you build something that turns out to be really nifty, and I think this feature is a good example– I look forward to seeing it roll out more broadly.

(for another time: I know not every tenant admin will want this feature turned on for their users without prior notice or permission, and Microsoft has a lot of room to improve the way they deliver features so that administrators can control user access to them.)

 

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I’m coaching Tri201

I’m excited to announce that I’m going to be volunteering as one of the coaches for Fleet Feet Huntsville’s Tri201 program. It’s designed to take people who are already at an intermediate level of fitness (including people who haven’t done a triathlon yet but have completed 10K or longer races and meet the de minimus swim and bike distance requirements) and prepare them to successfully complete the Rocketman Olympic triathlon in August. After completing Tri101 in 2014 and Tri201 last year, I’m really looking forward to share what I’ve learned in my short triathlon experience with a new group of athletes. If you live in metro Huntsville and are interested in triathlon, come check us out!

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