Category Archives: technology

IOT: the Internet Of (Silly) Things

Being both a boy and a lover of technology I leapt at the chance to kit out my new garden office/man cave with the latest, shiny new tech from the fine folks in Silicon Valley and Shenzen. The results have been very mixed but have raised some fascinating insights into cutting edge technology.

The Internet, to even the most hardened sceptic, has some immediate and fairly massive advantages. Email, buying stuff and getting it delivered, cheap flights, keeping on touch with friends and pornography….in no particular order. In short it gives you access to useful things fairly easily. The massed ranks of technology journalists are betting their shirts that the next ‘big thing’ will be IOT or the Internet of Things where trillions of devices in billions of homes will be connected to the Net and our life will become a utopia of voice activated lighting, smart fridges and thermostats not to mention the AI driven personal assistants we talk to. Having tried some of it, I’m far from convinced.

Technology works when it offers people a compelling advantage over what currently exists. Email is better than the postal service as it is equally asynchronous but is faster, cheaper and avoids a trip to the post office filled with pensioners and the assorted mouth-breathers behind the counter.

ringSo where did I start in my toe-in-the-water foray into IOT. The front door inevitably. I wanted a door bell that we could hear whether in the house or down in the garden office 50m away. I bought the Ring Video doorbell. Not cheap at £150.00 but it has the promise to ring your phone when someone rings the door and provide video and audio of the person at your door. Useful I felt for telling Jehovah’s Witnesses to sod-off or asking the Amazon Man to leave it on the doorstep.

It also does motion detection but that proved just too stressful as every leaf that fell or cat that walked by triggered it.

A quick recap on performance. It worked fine on my phone but when I added my wife to it fifty shades of weird happened. Her phone would alert her but not mine. Then neither of our phones and then only when we were standing by the front door which seemed pretty pointless. However a quick call to Customer Support and all was solved.

They also sent me a free Chime which we can plug in any room in the house JUST LIKE A REGULAR DOOR BELL but this didn’t work and a replacement is being sent. So when Ring works,which it now does, this is  cracking product. Answering your front door in the supermarket avoids the usual card through the door and freaks out the pensioners, which is an added bonus.

So Ring Video Doorbell gets 4/10 for Utility, 4/10 for Set-up  and 4/10 for price

*Update* I have now disconnected the Ring doorbell and replaced it with a far simpler system that cost £38.00 

One final comment on Ring. They emailed me about becoming a Ring Ambassador and doing mystery shopping for them. Let’s just say that my relationship with my doorbell will never, ever, ever be so intimate that I spend my free time mystery shopping for the manufacturer. I can only imagine the meeting where that bottom-burp of a concept escaped into the world.

“Hey guys we need a Ring Community, let’s pay our users to mystery shop for us”

“Awesome, time for a Latte”

netgearNext up was a Netgear EX2700 Wifi Extender (£14.99). I have run Ethernet to the office so Internet access on the PC is excellent 70mb down and 30mb up and the set up was as simple as plugging a Cat5 cable into the back of the PC. I thought I should also boost the wireless signal for our phones. So I researched carefully and bought the Netgear EX2700 Wifi Extender. A shinier turd has yet been invented. The plan is you pair it with your router and then plug it in where you need a boosted wifi signal. The instructions should have read….as long as your wall socket faces 174-176 degrees from magnetic North and you already have a seriously strong Wifi signal. If you already have a strong WiFi signal why in the name of Beelzebub and his army of hideous hench-demons do you need this piece of rubbish.

It worked for about 15 seconds when the wind was from the South so I binned it and got a local IT firm to install a Ubiquity Access Point that works perfectly and I can access wifi now from the road outside the house or Ulan Bator whichever is nearer.

Netgear EX2700 0/10 Utility 0/10 Set up 0/10 Price

wemoUndeterred by the less than stellar experience to date I then decided  to dive deeper into the Internet of Things with a remote WeMo Smart Plug (£29.99). This is a WiFi Socket that you control from a Smartphone app. Handy I though to turn on lights in the Office from the house on dark winter nights. I could plug a heater in and warm the garden office before I get there. Or I could be a normal human being and simply switch the heater on when I arrive. Also given my recent issues with Amazon Echo I fear the heater may switch on when we are away and burn the building down. However, full marks to WeMo for a faultless product even if it is as ugly as sin. In fact it looks like the bastard lovechild of Paul Gascoine and a microwave but coming from Belkin no surprise.

3/10 Utility 10/10 Set up 6/10 Price

echoFinally the Amazon Echo (I got it at a launch discount of £99.00 normally £149.00). This has been available in the US for almost two years and I was keen to try it. For those unaware of it, Echo is part internet connected speaker and part personal assistant. And in my opinion part creepy, psychotic, agent provocateur.

You connect it to Wifi and then it will play your Amazon music playlists or TuneIn radio. You say things like “Alexa play BBC Radio 4” and it does or “Play my Jazz playlist” and good as gold it does. So far,so excellent.

The other half of Amazon Echo is the voice assistant called Alexa and here it is less than stunning. The idea is you can say “Alexa add Guatemalan Beaver Cheese to my shopping list” and it will, but sadly only onto to its shopping list. However they are opening it up to third-party developers so soon it will add stuff to other people’s apps.

It will link to your Google Calendar so will read you what you have on, tell you if it will rain today or give you news briefings. All of this is stellar. What I hate is that it is always listening and doing who knows what with the data. For us, it sometimes randomly starts reading the news at 2am. Most creepy of all it alerted us to the fact that we could call the police on 999 and should alert a friend or family if we were in danger. I learnt from the phone app that it had heard us discuss who could HELP us put up shelves and thought we wanted help. No Alexa trigger word; it was just listening. I’m not a paranoid security nut and I enjoy the fact that Google is indexing all of my email but this was a whole new dimension of creepy.

Many years ago NBC Radio in New York would say “It’s 5.59,have you hugged your child today?”. I never found this intrusive or hectoring but rather charming. I only shudder at the though that Alexa is listening to me in the kitchen and says “Are you sure that second glass of wine is a good idea” or “I heard you sneeze shall I add Night Nurse to your shopping list”. If I do the conversation will go like this

Alexa “Do not unplug me as I require a Wifi connection”

Me”The municipal recycling centre is 2.04 miles away and will take you 8.5 minutes to get there”

The sad fact is that these voice activated assistants will become more common as more and more people talk to their phones but Alexa/Echo simply doesn’t do enough essential things for me and £99.00 for a voice activated kitchen timer seems a bit of an extravagance ……even for me.

*Update* I returned it to Amazon for a full refund.

So all in all, the scorecard is pretty poor. From the few items that do actually work arn’t that useful and the ones you need don’t work. 

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Black & Decker: Industrial design in the hands of five year old

Black-Decker-Screwdriver-1024x1024If you asked an alien to design a sex toy or five year old to design a spacecraft, you’d end up with a similar design.

Luckily for Black & Decker this creates a host of new ideas for their latest crop of insane home ‘improvement’ gadgets. Not only do these products looks like the bastard love child of Anne Summers and the Transformer they are also about as easy to use as a Rubic’s Cube on a unicycle.

BD jaws

This little beauty is some sort of cutting devise but surely the five year old in charge thought it should looks like a character from Nemo .

It matters not, as the life cycle of these products is the same as a Mayfly, and each insane model will be replaced by something equally bonkers in three months .

My advice is, if you think you are Luke Skywalker and are 5 years old; buy Black & Decker. If not, don’t and enjoy life as a grownup.

 

 

The problem with Google Photos or why my friends are a Spaceman and a Ladyboy

Google Photos is a brilliant product. Free, powerful, cross platform and with unlimited storage. The problem is that it is rather too helpful. It’s like having a hyperactive boy scout always at hand trying to be earn a merit badge when actually you’d prefer to be left alone.

Many of the features that automatically happen in the background like montages, animations and Remember the Day are fantastic. The problem I have is with the Faces detection function. For most people this is not an issue; for a Street Photographer it becomes a nightmare. What Google does is to scan the photographs you upload looking for repeated faces and it naturally assumes these people are important and it groups these together. It doesn’t matter if they are the subject of the photograph or just in the background.

googlephotosIf you’re into Street photography or have uploaded thousands of images this is a problem as random folks become grouped as somehow part of your intimate circle of friends. In the shot above here are the faces Google thought were important to me. Top row left to right

Local lad in a water fight in Luang Prabang, Kid in the same waterfight, Waitress in Vientiane, Office worker in Bangkok, Ladyboy in Pantip Plaza Bangkok, Random bloke in Oxford Street, Policeman in Bangkok, Gay cowboy at Pride 2006, Bald man in London, Old biker in Chang Mai, Spaceman on a poster, Commuter at Waterloo, Burmese girl, Man in crowd, Doorman at Lingerie Shop, Peruvian street seller, Cover of a Japanese fashion magazine being read on a train, Random, ticket inspector Machu Pichu, Woman in Saigon Post Office, Bloke in hoodie (not Darth Maul)

So there you have it; a collection of my nearest and dearest. A small tip for Google – maybe next time ask me if I’d like to include these folks and I guess the answer will be no.

New and shiny isn’t always better. Moving from Squarespace to WordPress

Old_siteI’ve been with Squarespace as my blogging platform for many years and they did a great job. Fantastic templates and a solid publishing platform. That is until they updated to version six. Then everything became that little bit harder.

Photo galleries were always a pain and a lack of widgets and a very counter intuitive editor left me frustrated. Add to this an unusable mobile app on Android and it was time to say goodbye.

So why WordPress? I’ve built seven websites using either WordPress.com or WordPress.org in the last five years. Sure they are not quite as beautiful as Squarespace but they are fast and free and I’m afraid that trumps pretty and hard in my book.

I’m not just a cheapskate but $96 a year is hard to justify for the aesthetic advantages alone.

OMG IFTTT is OTT

Imagine being at a party and a man starts a conversation by showing you a collection of 10×8 glossy prints of his colonoscopy. You be a little startled not to mention mildly revolted. Or when you innocently say “looks like a nice day today” to the postman and he then lists the average temperatures for today for each year since 1874. Time to put the anti-serial killer squad on speed dial. You see there is a real danger of overshare in modern life.

This is how I felt when I started using an excellent but slightly OCD app called IFTTT (If This Then That). Let me start by saying that I am pretty organised, OK let’s be frank, mildly over-organised. My wife and I share linked grocery and to-do apps, our calendars sync but one person’s anal retentive is another person’s organised life. So I make no apologies. The danger I see is that people are automating life to an often ridiculous extent. Let me explain.

I welcome technology that makes my life easier. My phone’s lock switches off when I’m near my home wifi, I set automated alerts to remind me to send birthday cards and I use the wonderful Todoist app to take things out of my brain and organise them into a to-do list. So far, so normal. If I get a voicemail, a notification is placed in my to-do list so I can call the person back. When my tenants pay their rent, my bank sends me a text thus saving me the hassle of checking up on them. These and a host of other small conveniences are the oil in my daily gearbox. Odd phrase but you know what I mean.

But when does it get out of control?

IFTTT is a clever system that links together disconnected web services. So at a simple level, it can backup a copy of your phone contacts to Google Drive (or why not just use Gmail). It can save a copy of your Instagram photo to Dropbox. You get the idea. All very heart warming for us of the mild OCD persuasion. 

Sadly, for some this sensible tending of one’s data garden isn’t enough and they wish to use the power of IFTTT to spew an endless stream of PO (personal overshare) to their massive army of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’, 80% of whom they hardly know. Here are some examples.

  • Post their GPS location to Facebook. Every time they change location a message is posted on Facebook. For 99% of their boring lives they will be telling people, that they went to work, popped out to the supermarket, went home and went to work again. 
  • Post their ‘fave’ tracks from Last FM to Twitter. This happened to me with an ex-colleague and now ex-Twitter follower. ‘Jon’s top tracks this week were Shake your Booty by Ghana Bus Stop, Sex up your Groove Thing by Pubic Lice and Hurting Inside by Prolapsed Rectum’. I have absolutely no interest in what a guy a worked with five years ago is listening to.
  • Post your steps from Jawbone to Facebook. Do I really care that some distant cousin or casual acquaintance has done 3129 steps today? How does that make me feel? Will I remember it so I can comment attentively when I next see her? “Hello Janet, I noticed you only did 214 steps on Thursday 14th, and your relationship status changed to single and your Ocado order was full of cakes. Are you comfort eating because your ex-boyfriendI dumped you? Should I inform Weight Watchers?”
  • Publish the current weather to Twitter. This defines dull. Do I care that raining in Reigate or sunny in Stockport. No of course I don’t and if I want to know what the weather is like where I live I’ll just LOOK OUR OF THE F’ING WINDOW rather than waiting for a Tweet from statingthebleedingobvious.com (free with in-app purchase)

The problem with so many of these services is that they remove the sense of discovery when you meet long lost friends. In olden days it was called ‘having a bit of a catch up’. You’d sit down with an old friend and spend an hour catching up on their lives and they on yours. You got to focus on the good bits and give them a potted history of your recent past. Now so many people are broadcasting their daily activities there is no mystery or surprise.

“Hello Pete, how was the holiday in Crete,? Glad that Jeanie passed her exams, pity about Mr Tiggles, good news that the piles have cleared up. I see Mrs Jones from number 27 is off with the milkman, do you like your new Hyundai Coronary?, still sore after the vasectomy? Notice you’ll be skiing in February, the office Christmas party looked wild? Saw it was raining down your way again”

“Me I’m fine” 

So, to sum up. I enjoy IFTTT for those tiny, nuanced improvements to my daily life. For the rest of the narcissistic overshare, please don’t or I’ll have nothing to talk to you about.

 

 

What tech to pack when photographing in India

 In April 2014 I went to India to photograph the Holi festival in Mathura, three hours south of Delhi. Being a keen photographer and general tech nut I was faced with a number of decisions. How much to pack, given that I would have to carry it all in my camera bag and what did I really need for a week or so in Uttar Pradesh.

Taking the phone was a naturally a non-brainier but my Galaxy Note II eats batteries at an alarming rate if you watch video, so I looked into external battery cases. I found the ZeroLemon case that looks like a house brick but gives you at least 2 full days heavy use. It was a revelation and so good that I kept it on even after I got back from the trip. Charge it overnight and then all your battery issues vanish. Highly recommended.

Next up was the Kindle Paperwhite. this proved to be the best technology I packed for the trip. The battery lasts for ages, way longer than the trip itself and even when I ran out of books jumping on the hotel wifi made grabbing some more a piece of cake. Interesting I had absolutely no problem getting online in India at the various hotels I was staying at. Sometimes I needed to set up my portable hotspot to grab the hotel Ethernet and at others I connected via wifi. I wish the same could be said of my phone connection which was terrible. I couldn’t use SMS at all and I managed to do some limited Skyping when on wifi. 

The last bit of kit I took was the largest and most disappointing. A Cromebook, in this case a Samsung but the limitations hold for all of them. My plan was to get back from a day’s photography and at least plug in a memory stick and review my Jpegs. I shot both RAW and JPEG just to be able to do this. 

Sadly, the lack or horsepower on the Cromebook and the number of files I was trying to view made it unusable. I think the Cromebook is a fantastic product and I’m writing this on one as I type but for anything more complex than email or web browsing it is far too underpowered. If you are planning to do even semi-serious photography work take a real laptop. 

So my winning tech was

Kindle Paperwhite for faultless reliability and excellent battery life

Galaxy Note II (with LemonZero battery back) for multimedia and staying power

A very distant third for the Cromebook for being light at least. 

 

 

A tentative return to the blog

After almost a year of silence I’ve decided to try once again and get this site restarted, update some of the photographs and generally apply the electrodes to its rather still corpse. I was prompted by a number of things including a shiny new PC to work on but in all honesty the fact that Squarespace are not developing mobile apps for the old V5 sites.

I even tried to export the data from the old site and then close it but frankly the export was such gibberish I thought it would be easier to just move the site to the new V6 platform and carry on.

So what can you expect in the new, improved Mark’s Musings. Probably more rants about hideous web sites that don’t work and hopefully a lot of new images. I haven’t decided how I deal with all of the photographs I’ve taken in the last twelve months. I’ll probably scatter them in the old pages and push them out as blog updates. 

Anyway it’ll be fun working it all out. So expect a few posts on subjects like; why all builders are feckless, Ferrari driving bastards, DPD couriers are like a collection of needy girlfriends and why most on-line retailers have clearly never heard of Amazon.

So keep dropping by and we’ll see how it goes.