Bored On The Fourth Of July?

Beach

Image by Terri Cnudde from Pixabay

Not really. I actually wrote this a few summers ago while I was on holiday and pretty much disconnected from the internet, something that many people can’t deal with anymore, as evidenced by people I see leaving shops or the Royal Mail parcel collection point and immediately reaching for their smartphones.

Instead I was using an energy efficient, wireless information transmission media to give me something to do when not watching ships go by, fishermen fishing or birds swooping around – reading books and magazines. It was great, relaxing, not feeling that I should be doing anything else. I did even less in the afternoon after arriving – simply sitting in the sun watching the occasional boat go by and listening to the waves and birds. Me and my folks had walked into the nearby town, eaten fish and chips by the sea and done some shopping.

I wasn’t completely electronics-free, I had access to a digital TV to watch Antiques Roadtrip and thousands of songs stored on my phone to listen to but mostly I was only doing these things later in the evening, after Cider-O’Clock, when the sun was setting and, to paraphrase the cricket, bad light stops reading. If I’d relied on internet streaming services I’d have no music or TV.

If I stood in the right place I could get a faint 4G signal and my phone beeped a few urgent notifications at me but I didn’t feel the need to leap on them like my life depended on them, like they were some kind of life-sustaining manna from the cloud. For many today though the lack of connection would be unbearable – no way to know what everyone else is doing, no way of telling anyone what they’re doing – OMG people will think I’ve disappeared, or that I’m upset with them, I’ll lose their interest, or worst of all, I’ll fall off their news feeds, arghh. Some people would even worry that they’d miss something important from their work, that they should be available, just in case.

People who spend too much time online call this a digital detox but for me it wasn’t too different from being at home really, though it was refreshing to be away from the lure of Ebay – bargain hunter that I am it’s easy to just sit looking for stuff I don’t really need or in the end never actually buy. As it was the holiday was timed perfectly as at home I was still sorting out and reducing unnecessary stuff following my house move so if I’d been at home I’d have spent every spare moment digitising paperwork to then recycle.

So as the Americans celebrated their independence day (no comment) I celebrated my independence from their digital monoliths with a cider by the sea and sunset.

The Psycho Path Test

…or how to restrain yourself after being nearly barged into the path of a speeding van.

Street

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

There are “Rages” for everything these days so I feel justified in adding another here – Pavement Rage. It’s not new but I’ll elaborate anyway. Some months ago I suffered yet another example of pedestrian selfishness. There is a road in the town centre which has pavements either side of a single traffic lane, the pavements used to be about one person wide but have been widened to accommodate two people side-by-side, which is fine until you get a couple walking along and you’re walking towards them and when you meet neither of them wants to move either in front of or behind their partner and you end up getting forced to step into the road, hopefully avoiding any traffic. You can’t even stand still as you’ll just get barged aside without so much as an excuse me. I don’t mind if the people are unable to step aside easily, such as the elderly or disabled but for two able-bodied people to refuse to give way to another person is just ignorant and it makes you want to scream sometimes. Hence the pavement rage.

Some other choice examples…

I was walking along a wide pavement when a family group was walking towards me, not one of them moved aside and I ended up stood in a flower bed as they sauntered past. Then a chap in Lycra leaving a shop gets on his bike on the pavement, starts pedalling and swerves right across in front of me, nearly knocking me over – without even the slightest acknowledgement or apology, he hadn’t looked before setting off so was probably oblivious to my presence anyway. Another evening while walking home in the dark I saw a light on the path ahead of me, hovering silently, moving rhythmically side to side, was it an alien presence? No, it was a woman on a bike, I stepped into a driveway to let her go past, nearly twisting my ankle and falling over in the process, and she rode past without so much as a “thank you”.

On a Saturday morning, walking along a wide pavement carrying two heavy bags of shopping I was approaching a woman with a pushchair and two kids, one on either side of her, taking up the whole width of the path, seeing that she had no intention of getting either of her kids to move out of the way I considerately stepped off the pavement and stood in front of a parked car – she then strode past again without so much as a thank you; because obviously she was entitled to take up the whole path and I was obliged to move out of her way so therefore she had no need to be grateful, how selfish I am.

The worst was when I was walking along the same narrow road mentioned above, eating a bag of chips and a couple were approaching from the other direction, they looked well-off from the way they were dressed and as they reached me the man, who was on my side of the pavement, nearest the buildings, had no intention of moving out of the way, having that typical modern arrogance and sense of expectation that other people should get out of his way, because he’s important. To avoid losing my dinner I had to swerve closer to the building and nearly fell against the window of a pancake shop. I immediately turned and shouted after them “well don’t mind me” but they ignored me, the look on the face of the woman who was sat just inside the same window told me she couldn’t believe the other man’s behaviour either.

These are all examples of how much of our society has become so self-obsessed, so arrogant and aggressive, that people have the expectation that other people should stop for them, or stand aside for them, that they’re sense of self-importance is so strong that they feel that they can just do whatever they want to and sod anyone else. Has it really become wrong to be considerate and polite?  I hope not.

[The title was of course inspired by that of Jon Ronson’s excellent and fascinating book, The Psychopath Test]

The Cycle Path Test

 

Cycle Path

Image by Pam Patterson from Pixabay

Near where I live runs a path along the former trackbed of the closed railway line from Newark to Nottingham. There are many old lines like this across the country – I’ve also walked on the path at Threlkeld in the Lake District and part of the Monsal Trail in Derbyshire. They are wonderful places to visit to experience the outdoors – mostly surfaced, level and easy to walk on for everyone, many like ours here are designated cycle paths as part of the Sustrans network that since the seventies has made at least something good from the Beeching annihilation of the railway network of the sixties.

I am quite happy to use cycle paths whether they’re in the countryside or in the town, though it seems many people don’t seem to agree with cyclists using them. I have seen on so many occasions cars parked on cycle lanes and on the railway path I encounter people walking dogs or otherwise exercising who rather than returning my friendly “morning” and smile just scowl at me, I know what they’re thinking – I’m one of these annoying cyclists who rides on their footpath and integral dog toilet.

Even the ones who don’t think the place belongs solely to them seem oblivious to the fact that there might just be the odd bike rider around at some point.

One day I saw a man who had walked down one of the entrance ramps to the path, he hesitated at the edge of the path with his back to me and then just as I reached where he was he took two steps to his right, without looking behind him, straight into my way – I swerved round him while shouting “whoa”… and only narrowly missed ending up amongst the nettles.

Last Sunday I approached a group of four women taking up the whole width of the path, I rang my bell a number of times until one of them looked round and said “oh, sorry we didn’t see you there” or hear me, presumably. Then, as I passed between them she said “you’ll have to negotiate them now” – the ‘them’ in question being six big dogs, running free on the path ahead, without leads and quite a way away. As they tend to do the women called their respective pets’ names and I then suddenly had a group of dogs running in my direction and one heading straight for me, I had to stop completely, expecting it to actually collide with me. “You’d never think this was a CYCLE PATH” I muttered, audibly, as I set off again.

Ruined my Strava time on that segment too.

Further along at regular intervals were a number of small tied-up blue bags left on either side of the path, no doubt waiting for the dog-mess fairy to pick up later, as someone else will always clear things up won’t they… But that’s a whole other blog post right there.

[I’m all for recycling, hence the title’s unmistakable similarity to today’s other, related, post]

 

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.