The Technocats

Ginger Cat

Image by Daga_Roszkowska from Pixabay

For a long time cats have chosen a suitable Human to live with and we’ve either had to let them in or out of our houses on demand, left a window open or otherwise made a small hole in our back doors and fitted cat flaps.

These were fine of course until our cat was followed by other cats into the house, or other cats, being naturally curious and hungry decided to see if there was anything to eat behind this strange little door.  As such the lockable door was invented but still required Human intervention – usually at night.  The option to have the door set to out-only or in-only was unusual as I’m sure the cat would wonder why it had been suddenly trapped indoors, or locked out.

Next came the wonderfully humourous magnetic cat flap.  Our cat had this and we were only one family in many who witnessed their moggy returning home with some random metallic object dangling from its collar and a bemused look on its face.  Short of amassing a small collection of random screws they never brought back anything valuable though.  The other side effect that took some getting used to was when the cat walked too close to a radiator and dragged the magnet clattering along it’s length, usually at two in the morning, downstairs.

Recently though the rise of microchipping of cats for identifying lost pets by vets has created the smart cat flap, the feline equivalent of a hotel key-card, only allowing authorised cats through.  The problem, from the cat’s point of view used to be the magnet not releasing the door quickly enough when in a hurry, resulting in a frantic clattering of the door until the cat’s releasing of the flap coincided with the releasing of the latch.  I imagine the same situation with the chip flaps would be like having to repeatedly swipe a chip and pin card at the supermarket, forward and back in front of the door.

So technology moves on, making things better, but it’s still not as funny as a cat strolling into the room with a spoon attached to its collar and an expression on it’s face along the lines of “what?”

The World Wrapped in Cotton Wool

Warning Signs

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

In recent years, it seems to me, our urban architecture has turned into a sea of yellow and red warning signs and yellow and black striped tape.

Today there seems to be a constant corporate fear of being sued that has caused so much of this kind of protectiveness. For example the Royal Mail depot near me has big warning signs at the site entrance warning of a “Trip Hazard” which may be the ends of the lowered pavement where public pedestrians are corralled between railings towards where they collect parcels. Where this public path intrudes onto the roadway a big yellow line and accompanying signage tells the humans to not stray outside the lines lest they be flattened by Postman Pat’s little red van. There are further trip hazard signs and yellow and black tape at the actual entrance to the collection office as despite there being a ramp to one side the straight ahead approach involves negotiating, unbelievably, a normal height step. OMG, get me some climbing gear. Despite all this there are still the big signs saying “Beware of Vehicles”.  When I was young we were taught the Green Cross Code to follow when near roads.

Another example of the idea of “you didn’t do enough to stop me injuring myself” are scaffolding poles – “now padded for your safety and comfort” and also wrapped in yellow and black tape. I wonder whether it was a ploy to support the manufacturers of tubular yellow foam products, maybe they weren’t selling enough as pipe lagging but at some point in the last fifteen years it was decided that every bit of publicly accessible scaffolding needed legwarmers. On pavements the world over there are lampposts, street signs, litter bins, bollards, walls and even doorsteps or whole sections of buildings jutting out into the path of pedestrians yet none of those things are padded for your protection, or edged with wasp-coloured tape. You can’t say that it’s because as a temporary structure people might not be aware that they’re there as even a lamppost is an unknown obstruction to anyone who doesn’t know the area well – and even to someone who is local but not paying attention. I’m amazed that the lampposts and railings aren’t similarly adorned. Yet.

I can see the point of helpful signage, warning of a hidden step, or low beam, or something round a corner that’s not obvious, just as I can see the point of the interlock on my washing machine that stops you opening the door until the water’s gone – it saves you having to mop up the floor, and aircraft doors can’t be opened in flight for obvious reasons – but some things can only exist because companies think they need to protect people from themselves because they can’t be trusted to negotiate the world without explicit instructions. Trains for example used to have windows that could be opened while moving, as could the doors but not any more because someone might try to depart the vehicle at speed, or perhaps just part of them.

So we end up with shops selling luke-warm coffee or cups plastered with warning that the contents may be hot. Microwave meals similarly warning that on removing the item from the microwave the contents “may be hot” – well I would hope so otherwise it’s time to buy a new microwave.

Perhaps the companies have a point, that more people today don’t have or just don’t use common sense, or maybe that people are more willing to sue if they’ve not been explicitly told not to do something.  Either way at this rate there is a risk of missing the hazards because you’re too busy looking at the signs.

Lifelogging

The rear LCD display on a Flip Video camrea

The rear LCD display on a Flip Video camera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Often today people worry about surveillance by the government with CCTV everywhere and intelligence agencies able to view what we do online (hi, Mr/Mrs NSA/GCHQ person) but there’s another side to the technology which is becoming ever more popular.

Many of us carry some form of video camera, I have a smartphone and a good compact camera that can record HD video, in fact I used this the other day to record a worker at our factory who was adamant he could cut a worktop with a saw that everyone else said was clearly blunt.  The resulting video is a possible candidate for YouTube, complete with Top Gear style “four hours later…” captions, as I joked at the time.

We now have the ability to record everything we experience in some way or another and people feel the need, or the desire, to do exactly that and share it with the world, even in their most intimate moments, as if to prove that they did it, or how good at it they were, so to speak.  It’s a standing joke that Instagram and Facebook are a repository of photos of people’s dinner but in some ways it’s true.  In any pub you go in there are groups of drinkers gurning at smartphone cameras, never again will you be able to get utterly pished without it being recorded.  I once had my glasses “borrowed” by a woman whose friend took a photo of her, wearing my glasses, with me kissing her cheek.  Months later a woman stood by me at a bar turned and said “I’ve got a photo of you on my Facebook.”  Same woman, same glasses.  Technology has made it simpler, quicker and cheaper to create a digital photo album or slide show that, without needing shelf-space or the setting up of a projector, can be virtually infinite in size, accessible anywhere, searchable and sorted by date.

The next stage is again in the area of wearable technology.  Google’s Glass project, along with other similar techie-eyewear, promise the ability to instantly record anything you can see, which has worried many privacy campaigners despite the devices clearly having a red, Borg-like, light on the side when they’re recording.

The other type of device is specially designed for recording just about everything you experience – the Lifelogger.  Two devices have appeared so far, Autographer and Narrative, which are intended to document your life while you’re wearing it of course.  While you’re not you can imagine it sitting there wondering where you’d gone.   The two have different approaches, Autographer uses five sensors to detect location and changes in light and motion to take a photo when you change location of when it thinks you’re doing something interesting like running after someone.  Narrative takes a picture twice a minute.  When downloaded you can then look through what they’ve logged and perhaps see things you’d missed or remember something you’d forgotten – which might be both a blessing and a curse depending on the event.

One day we could all be carrying a multi-sensored device that, in the event of an emergency, could log what’s happened to you and call for help – a kind of personal Black Box Recorder.  This is happening in cars already, as the Russian meteorite impact last year showed – the event captured by an unprecedented number of witnesses thanks to dashcams and smartphones.  In-car video is also useful for insurance companies, TV clip shows and YouTube, recent personal experience of idiot drivers makes me want one more than ever.

Whether the current Lifelogging technology has a use is down to whether it’ll record anything useful or interesting but the idea has been picked up by emergency services who have considered something like Glass to both record an incident and how it’s dealt with (possibly for legal, in case of being sued, reasons, inevitably these days) while also providing vital information to the medic or police officer in real-time.  Already trials have shown that police wearing body cams are seeing positive results in terms of arrested criminals accepting their guilt.

So we hurtle onwards into the recorded future, the problem could be having time to sort the wheat from the chaff of all these Lifelogged images and indeed where to store them all.

Looks like we’ll need a bigger server.

Tech Camp

English: Gordale Scar Camp Site near Gordale S...

English: Gordale Scar Camp Site near Gordale Scar in the Yorkshire Dales (North Yorkshire), United Kingdom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For Ray Mears camping would be a tarp tied between a few trees somewhere in the outback but in this country many campers have moved on from simple pleasures of the outdoors.  A campsite once consisted of a field devoid of cowshit, then came toilet blocks and shower rooms to de-grime yourself after a satisfying slog across the moors or up a mountain and back.  Even then you’d retire to your tent, fire up the camping stove for some simple tinned beans and sausage or a dehydrated meal in a foil bag, maybe even sit around a campfire if it was allowed and drink a few beers or mugs of tea, look up at the stars and contemplate life, or tell a few stories or jokes.

Now though campsites are all teched up and I’m not in any way against that.  If you can’t bear to be completely off-grid there are some that have electrical hook-ups for tents as well as caravans and motorhomes, if you don’t have that then you can always get a solar charger for your phone and tablet, in the future kinetic chargers will make use of your daily hikes to juice your kit.  Many sites have good wireless broadband internet so you’ll never miss your favourite tv, can check your emails and continue to update the world on how your holiday’s going via Twitter and Facebook.  I recently visited Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales and on the campsite there I was able to read the news via my AP news app on my Nexus 7, write notes for this blog on my tablet and netbook (yes, I’m the one who still uses one, because it’s portable and cheap) and send my envious friends at home a picture of the beautiful weather and scenery.  My clever little tablet even added my exact GPS coordinates to the notes I added in Evernote.

If you can bear to take with you only your personal tech life and leave the work with an Out of Office notification then it’s the best of both worlds – the great outdoors when the weather’s nice combined with the comforting glow of the internet, or Angry Birds when it’s raining, or when you’re sat sipping a beer, listening to streamed music while reading articles as the sun sets.  As I was for that all too brief week.

Satellites, Cows and Penguin Poop

English: King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus...

English: King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus patagonicus), West Falkland. Français : Un Manchot royal. Photo prise sur l’île de Falkland occidentale (ou Grande Malouine), dans les Malouines. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many people worry about all the satellites up there pointing cameras down here but for scientists as well as governments they can be invaluable – particularly if you need to p p p pick up a penguin, or 9,000.

In recent years wildlife researchers have used satellite and aerial imagery to watch animal movements and behaviour.  Dr Sabine Begall, from the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany who had been studying magnetic sensing in animals, initially mole rats, decided to see if larger animals might have the same.  Dr Begall and colleagues used Google Earth to examine how cows stand in fields across the world (to rule out weather effects) and found that the majority faced north or south only, the effect was also seen in deer in the Czech Republic.

In 2009 a group monitoring how penguins were coping with changing environmental conditions wanted to confirm the location of breeding grounds.  Using satellite images, which didn’t have sufficient resolution to see individual birds, they were able to identify colonies due to the staining of the ground by guano – the penguins stay at the colony for around eight months.  The work confirmed the location of 26 colonies and found 10 more.

Then in December last year a team of Belgian and Swiss explorers visited one of these colonies, finding around 9,000 birds.  The article at The Atlantic has the photos.

Everyday Dangers

Dangerous Risk Adrenaline Suicide by Fear of F...

Dangerous Risk Adrenaline Suicide by Fear of Falling (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Jared Diamond of The New York Times provides an interesting lesson about how people in the modern world perceive dangers.  After witnessing friends in New Guinea refusing to sleep under an old, dead tree due to the risk of it falling he realised that people have begun to worry more about the bigger, more unlikely risks such as terrorist attacks, nuclear radiation, plane crashes and so on and be less vigilant towards smaller risks that are taken or encountered very often – risks that are ignored because people think “that’s not a problem, I’m careful” while often not being.

I personally have this “hypervigilant attitude towards repeated risks” or “constructive paranoia” – I watch what I’m doing when I’m descending the long flight of stairs outside, I wear well treaded shoes on snow and ice and I’m particularly careful when handling sheet glass; which can literally be lethal, or at least painful as the scars on my hands from unavoidable accidents attest.

As the article states, with access to emergency services and the assumption that help is only moments away the awareness of real dangers has become diminished and unlikely ones exaggerated.

Have a read of the full article, then be careful out there.

[NYT]

Planted Tech

My Garden

My Garden (by Andy Vickers)

I often miss the garden I had where I previously lived, before I moved to the town centre surrounded by concrete, roads, car parks, oh and a river and fields at the back.  Anyway, my garden was a wedge of land with a patio at one end and rows of flowers and plants.  I’d go and buy new plants at the weekends, once I planted a substantial shrub and was livid to find that slugs had defoliated it entirely overnight.

If I still had my garden I could perhaps combine it with my geek side and buy a gadget from Parrot to be released later in the year.  Known for their AR Drones this isn’t a slug-busting mini helicopter with slime-seeking missiles – brings a whole other meaning to the SALT treaty.  The Flower Power device measures sunlight, humidity, temperature and nutrient levels and can be customised to most types of plant so you can individually, and remotely keep track of the conditions your flowers are living with from the comfort of your sofa.

Now, engineers of Parrot, bring me my anti-slug drone.

Calculated Risks

Flooded Field

Flooded Field (©2012 by Andy Vickers)

I have watched the river behind where I live rise, flood and then recede over the last few weeks, the floods were at once potentially devastating yet fascinating.  In the past these floodplains were left for the rivers to occupy when needed but now as town expand and risk areas usually only used for industry are redeveloped for housing more people are choosing to live with the risk.

The general opinion is that floods are an occasional occurence, in this country we don’t often have our brick-built buildings swept away by floodwaters and the locations, often with beautiful views are worth paying the price for.  So research has found that even after major floods house prices in affected areas haven’t dramatically dropped, though it does discourage some people from moving into a town from elsewhere.

Some homeowners even come up with methods of flood-proofing their homes rather than give them up to the forces of nature.  One problem that comes with the risk though is that insurance companies are more likely in future to refuse to insure flood risk houses, potentially making them difficult to sell.

In addition it is also thought that much of the flooding is caused by the developments themselves, with too much ground covered with concrete and tarmac and nowhere for rainwater to drain away, and what can be taken away draining into antiquated sewers.  Flooding is likely to be a regular reality for many more people in the future and the best defence is preparation to protect your valuables.

[BBC]

The Greatest Marketing Opportunity on Earth

English: Commemorative stamp of Greece, The Fi...

English: Commemorative stamp of Greece, The First Olympic Games (1896), 2 lepta. Русский: Марка Греции. Первые Олимпийские игры, 1896, 2 лепты (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Someone once said “the revolution will be televised”, in that case it will almost certainly also be heavily sponsored.  In Britain as “London 2012” looms large on the horizon it’s jagged magenta shards casting a great shadow upon our capital.  Ahem, sorry.  As the games draw close our commercial TV channels are increasingly packed with adverts from the official sponsors/supporters/partners.  British Airways encourages people to not use their services to fly abroad but to stay at home instead and support Team GB (by all means use BAs internal flights of course).  The athletes will be able to have a pre-event snack on the official cereal bar of the olympic games though Nature Valley’s adverts are the most light hearted and least sentimentalized of the lot.  According to their ads P&G have the competitors every need seen to from keeping their kit pristine with washing powder, their hair clean,  right down to essential “feminine hygiene products” to keep Mother Nature at bay.  If they eat at the Official Restaurant of the games, Maccy D’s, then they won’t need the Fairy washing up liquid much though.  If consolation is needed then a losing javelin thrower can skewer a Dairy Milk from the official treat supplier of the games.  They can pay on their olympic Visa cards.

Joking aside the games sponsorship has received criticism in many areas including the heavy levels of sponsorship from fast food and drink companies; the fact that spectators are not allowed to use any device that is capable of recording video (must watch the footage on Sky/BBC coverage of course); and the fact that their terms for the torch relay advised that runners should wear “comfortable, unbranded or Adidas shoes.”  One commenter suggested simply running barefoot.  Apparently one mum in Kent was told she couldn’t wear a Help for Heroes wristband.

Then there’s the food and we return to the Official Restaurant, mine’s a Big Mac, thanks.  In McDonalds’ sponsorship deal it is specified that they can have the monopoly on selling chips or french fries unless sellers jump through the loophole of them being part of a Fish and Chips package and even then LOCOG had to ask McDonalds for permission to allow our traditional combo.  In the same article The New Statesman reminds us that T-shirts with logos of companies that aren’t official sponsors have been banned from the Olympic Park.  Some credit though goes to the LOCOG catering team who are trying to provide an interesting selection of food for visitors.

Companies and organisations not officially linked to the games have been referring to “the events this summer” for fear of getting into trouble for mentioning the word “Olympics” due to restrictions to control “unauthorised association” with the games – a concept which has even been enshrined in law especially for the games.  If you do say anything about LOCOG that they consider is in a “derogatory and objectionable manner” then you can’t link to the Olympics site, Mike Masnick at Techdirt linked anyway here.

I’m far from alone in my view of the Olympics sponsorship, while preparing this entry The Independent also launched a debate on the subject as have the BBC whose piece includes the story of a butcher who was told to remove a 2012 themed display of sausages, an old lady who couldn’t sell a £1 knitted doll in a olympic kit, and the Birmingham Royal Ballet who were forced to change the name of a production from “Faster, Higher, Stronger – the Olympic motto – to Faster”.

I’m not a fan of the Olympics as such but as it’s in our country I do hope that the sports will take centre stage from next friday and it’ll be an event to remember for the right reasons.

Cycling Back

Shimano Deore XT Schaltwerk hinten (am Mountai...

(or How It’s Made – 1945 Edition)

I ride a bike to work, and enjoy cycling, the wind in your hair, well the wind in just about every part of you depending on how you’re dressed.  So it was interesting to watch this video showing how bikes were made in postwar Britain, shortly before the coronation.

[Vimeo via Gizmodo UK]