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. 

New Forest Show: An overpriced market with some horses in the middle

Having lived in the New Forest for six years we had never been to the New Forest Show. Now I know why. We had been deterred by stories of horrific traffic jams but when we went on the first day of this year’s show the traffic was light mid-morning but that sadly was the best part of the day.

We parked easily but unfortunately it was in Wales, given that it was over one and a half miles from the show ground gates. My wife’s pedometer gave us that number in case you think I’m exaggerating.

The event itself is a mixture of farmers and pseudo-landed gentry strolling about in yellow corduroy trousers and checked shirts and chavs from the local campsites stopping to eat ‘Ye Olde Hampshire Sausage baps’ every thirty yards.

But we came to see the animals, so were guaranteed to see some. The Pig enclosure had one sad sow and her brood in a small pen surrounded by camera phones. We couldn’t get to see the cattle and frankly we could get closer to horses on the road home through the forest.

But you ask, the displays must have been great. Yes, the dressage and old milk float display were OK. Slightly more interesting that queuing for a miniature coffee sold by itinerant Latvians but my real complaint was the Metropolitan Police display team.

I’m from London and my idea of a Met Police Mounted Team is a group of mounted police with riot shields kettling Anarchists in Trafalgar Square. No prissy trotting for our fine boy in blue, full gallop with batons raised. Atomkraft Nein Danke, I think not sonny Jim; if you go back that far.

P7260254Here we saw some well trained boys and girls trot over faux-hedges at knee height. The horses were probably missing the smell of dope and kebabs in the air. It was billed as thrilling and exciting but it was SO dull. They set the odd arch on fire and the horses jumped through these but I think the horses were as bored as the spectators. The ‘highlight’ we were informed was when the police riders took off their jackets and THEN PUT THEM ON AGAIN. I’m not a horseman but if your job is riding horses in stressful urban situations this seems a useless skill. Tasering a demonstrator at full gallop while strapping on a flak jacket, now you’re talking urban policing.

So like everything at the New Forest Show, this display was rather tame, over-priced and not worth waiting for.


Spring and Summer Photography 2016

web_update-6I’ve had a busy few months on the photographic front after getting back from the US/Caribbean cruise in January. The first project is Ferry Tales more of which is in an earlier blog post.

As that was getting underway I went out at dawn one morning to a eel trap on the Test river near Longstock. The image above shows the scene which was pretty idyllic complete with hunting Barn Owl which,naturally, I was far too slow to catch.web_update-7

Then it was off to Berlin for a few days and I’ve shared some of these images but here are a few more.


web_update-16 So what of the rest of the summer? Lots of Ferry Tales and Lymington Camera Club walks plus some assorted side trips no doubt. Looking good for some material for my PAGB advisory day in October/November.

Ferry Tales – a long photographic commission

13310430_224797594571059_7035204963894275067_nA good friend and poet, Robyn Bolam asked me to join a project called Ferry Tales which is a group of poets, musicians, writers and a photographer (me) in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight who are running events, exhibitions and workshops for local people on the theme of arrivals and departures in their lives.

The plan is that I take photographs which acts as stimulus for the poets and musicians and we run a series of workshops and exhibitions from now until 2017 in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight showcasing the work.

You can follow us on Facebook at ferrytalesproject and please like/follow us. I’ll be growing the body of photographs as the year progresses but here are a few to get you started including a girl on her way to the Isle of wight Festival.

Our web site is at




Newtown Park – Nothing nasty in the woodshed

Newtown Park

If you’re a fan of Cold Comfort Farm you’ll get the reference in the headline. If not, don’t worry and enjoy the photographs. I was lucky enough to recently go on a private tour of a fabulous Georgian country estate near Lymington. The house is managed by a trust who spend a great deal of time, money and energy keeping it in spectacular repair. However, Palladian architecture to one side I was fascinated by the woodshed stuffed as it was with wonderful old tools.

Sadly, it is not open to the public but it was a privilege to see it despite the typical English spring weather.



Berlin: A remarkable story of courage and politics


The last time I was in Berlin was 1975. I was a fairly fresh faced fifteen year old on a school trip. A day trip to Berlin was the wonderful excuse for skipping lessons for the day. We flew from Gatwick with Freddie Laker at the crack of dawn and arrived in Templehoff in pouring rain.

We were driven around West Berlin in a coach while the terribly eager tour guide told us how many more trees there were in the West than the East. She even claimed ideological superiority on the basis that West Berlin has more dogs than East Berlin.

This reminded me of a meeting I attended at SHAPE where a US Army colonel explained the mineshaft theory, claiming the Soviets would ‘win’ because they could hide more of their population in mineshafts than the US to avoid nuclear armageddon .

Eventually we were dropped at Checkpoint Charlie and literally moved from a world of colour and neon to black and white. East Berlin was all grey concrete and most of the shops were closed. I remember going into a book store that seemed to only carry every word written by Marx or Lenin in every language known to man. I bought a hard backed copy of Das Capital in English for about 20p.

A gang of us school boys went into a foreigners store with visions of cut price caviar and vodka on our minds. Strangely the only things they had was picked cucumbers and Cadbury Dairy Milk.

Despite the gloom there were no street lights on and the whole of Unter Den Linden looked like a set from a spy movie. Which in many ways in was.

We came back through Checkpoint Charlie and as the only kid with an American passport mine was held back for checking. I made some quip about them not having to worry because I was a spy. That went down like a bacon sandwich at an ISIS convention. But I was 15.

Then back to West Berlin and the lights came on. Neon spewed from every bar and shop front. Our teachers foolishly gave us an hour to explore so a bunch of chums found the nearest bar where the staff were only too happy to sell us high tar German cigarettes, Rott Hande, from memory and we fired up these super cheap gaspers while guzzling our beer.

So Berlin was part artificial capitalist shop window and part hideous endorsement of the failure of the Eastern Block. Both sides maintained a high state of tension secure in the fact that West Berlin was capable of being over run by the East in about fifteen minutes.

Fast forward thirty five years and I’m back in Berlin staying in the fabulous Hotel Adlon in Unter den Linden by the Brandenburg Gate in what was East Berlin.

Yes it’s changed out of all recognition but the reason for this post isn’t the physical changes it is a salute to the politicians and people of Berlin.

Most cities suffer catastrophic upheaval maybe once in a century. Berlin had it twice, in 1941-45 and 1961-1989. However, it’s not the destruction that I want to focus on but the spirit of the city.

Germany as a whole has been very upfront about acknowledging it’s Nazi past. Hard not to. Berlin has many powerful memorials to the Jews of Europe who died.

The Holocaust Memorial is particularly powerful as you walk between concrete blocks all of different heights symbolising the individuals who died. The unnerving bit is that you hear voices in other rows rather like the voices of ghosts. Go. And take your time.

I was expecting the Nazi past was going to be the most central theme in Berlin but of course it couldn’t be. The division of the country from 1961-1990 was the greatest wound the country suffered in many ways and the supreme act of political will in reunification it’s greatest triumph. The sensitivity in which the city has both commemorated and celebrated the wall and it’s fall is an object lesson to cities everywhere.

wp-1463514479108.jpgThe path the wall took is remembered by a double row of bricks that snakes around the city pavements in a seemly never ending band. In places single sections of the wall remain with plaques explaining the history. It is a remarkable and powerful reminder of the division that effected not only city but the country.

So visit Berlin but understand that this is a special city with a unique history and set of challenges. But the effort required in reunification was immense and I applaud them for their success.

wp-1463514437264.jpgNow onto the political bit. I am by nature a glass-half-full person so the idea of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union depresses me beyond belief. If you want to effect change then roll your sleeves up and try and change things from within rather than stand on the sidelines chucking rocks. Or come to Berlin and see how politicians with vision and people with courage can effect change.

What the bleeping hell is wrong with kitchen appliances

microwaveI’ve been thinking about the way modern kitchen appliances have gone mad. I mean seriously mad.

In the old days, like three years ago, you bought a washing machine or an oven and it just did its job. No alerting, no insane bleeping, it just did what you asked of it.

Fast forward a few years and the average kitchen device has become a health and safety Nazi. If I get too close to my oven it bleeps so that I don’t charbroil my genitals. My gas hob won’t start unless I sign a consent form and our washing machine ends its cycle with a cacophony of bleeps and chimes that go on longer than Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

My only friend in the kitchen is a fifteen year old microwave that just does what it originally promised.It heats food by the use of a simple timer. It doesn’t weigh the food or calculate the cooking time based on orbit of Mars, it just heats stuff. Given it’s age it probably irriatiates my genitals but that’s a risk I’m happy to take.

So now I’ve decided that I will keep every kitchen appliance until it explodes or simply gives up because the new ones are wonderfully sophisticated, but totally useless.