Gadgets, Tech

Too Smart For Their Own Good

Kettle, Boiling

Image by Ken Boyd from Pixabay

Why do we need “smart” fridges, kettles, toasters. I like some technology to be dumb.

On Red Dwarf the smart toaster ends up in the rubbish compartment, because it’s annoying.

Considering the limited useful life of the average smartphone or tablet, before updates and so on force it to become slow and unsteady or it just fails altogether why do you want one attached to, and controlling your fridge. Ok, so it can keep track of what you need to buy, it can show you recipes and play music – so can your phone or tablet that you no doubt also have. My fridge-freezer is over three years old, I know this because it was here when I moved in, lurking in the kitchen as though waiting to see who’d turn up next. It’s seen the departure of the spare freezer and the replacement of the mouldy washing machine that had also been left here. The manufacturer is defunct now but the fridge-freezer still works, it has one control and keeps stuff cold, if I want to know whether I need more milk I have a cunning method – I open the door. There has been talk of smart fridges being able to tell you whether you have the ingredients for a recipe – fine if they’re all in there, for mayonnaise or eggs and bacon perhaps – but again, just look in it. Similarly they say you could scan things in and it’d help with monitoring diet – so what’s next a fridge that criticises my food purchases. I’m not having an appliance judging me for buying an eclair (or two) or for eating them both withing two hours.

I also prefer critical gadgets like alarm clocks and door locks to be low tech too – my clock radio is analogue and short of a power-cut will wake me up with modern miserable pop songs every morning without fail, having not crashed and rebooted, losing it’s settings overnight. I don’t want my door to unlock with my phone, a key only fails when it snaps – much less of a regular occurrence than the wifi or bluetooth not working. And I know the digital locks have a manual backup but that, in a way, just proves the point – they have to have the backup so why not just use the backup in the first place, a key needs no batteries. The car has a remote but there’s a flip-out key attached to it.

The internet of things has some uses, remote heating control and alarms or video door-viewers for example, but considering I need to fill the kettle with water and the toaster with bread I feel that the simple controls on both are enough, I do like the hidden blue progress lights on the toaster – only visible when in use, they are the funkiest thing I’ve seen on a kitchen appliance.

So much is tech for tech’s sake, a case of look what we can do, and as the more complex a device is the more likely something will fail. I wouldn’t want to buy a new expensive smart kettle every couple of years, or find I can’t have a coffee because the manufacturer’s gone bust or the API is no longer supported, I don’t want to wait for some toast because the toaster’s upgrading its software.

And so again it’s time for a decidedly low-tech cuppa. Goodnight.

Music, Tech

The Magic Jukebox


Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Back in 1996 I bought a CD player and my collection of CDs began, I was impressed at the time that this stereo had twin tape decks and could hold seven CDs, yes, seven, and it could shuffle them – a process gloriously punctuated with mechanical clanks and whirs as it swapped the disc trays around. It took a while to fill that, some albums took up permanent residence (Beth Orton, Trailer Park). Later I bought a Sony Minidisc player and was again impressed that I could store whole collections of albums on one mini disc. Of course next came a couple of little 4Gb then 8Gb MP3 players and it was mightily impressive to hold dozens of albums in a tiny aluminium box that fitted in your hand, I remember listening to every Elbow album during sunny evenings of one holiday in the Lake District, hearing some of them still brings back the memory.

According to Microsoft Zune which manages the MP3s on my main PC I have 1134 Albums from 521 Artists totalling 11565 songs. Many of these are singles, downloaded tracks and compilations but it’s a collection that’s given me my own personal radio station.
  A few years ago I saw an old advert for a 10Mb hard drive which cost thousands of pounds and today would hold a handful of documents, now I have thousands of times the storage in my pocket, this rapid rise in the size of affordable miniaturised storage has given us the ability to take so much music with us, and then broadband internet and 4G mobile took things even further.

When I lived in the town centre I liked to have some kind of background noise while using the computer for either reading or writing as it blocked out the kind of distracting noise from outside that I had to put up with otherwise, I’d have the radio on but the problems with that were firstly I spent half my time muting the radio because they were playing crap, and secondly I couldn’t seem to get a signal inside without crackly interference half the time.
  So I ditched the radio and replaced it with my own collection streamed over the internet via Google Play Music which allowed you to upload or match your own library to their servers. The hardware was made up of my old Nexus 7 tablet permanently sat in its charging cradle, mains powered and connected to a bluetooth speaker. The only problem in the early days was that sometimes it only played a song three seconds at a time, relying on slow broadband and less capacity for a large number of users, this is less of a problem now as the infrastructure of the internet improves all the time.
  Since then I’ve moved somewhere quieter but the technology has expanded. Now my phone can hold thousands of tracks itself, so my favourites are on that for use with headphones or the auxiliary adaptor I fitted to the car radio, meanwhile my newest tablet is connected to my Sony HiFi via a bluetooth adaptor doing the same job as the old one, connected to Google, so I can sit at the computer with the tablet on the desk and shuffle my entire collection or play anything I want, and if I want to go and sit on the sofa and listen I simply take the tablet with me.
  What still seemed futuristic a few years ago is the latest iteration of this – the Google Assistant, or Amazon Alexa or Apple Siri depending on your particular preference. If I feel like it I can simply yell across the living room “Hey Google, play Deacon Blue from my library” and it plays something by Deacon Blue on it’s own in built speaker – though I’d previously had it connected via Bluetooth to the Sony before the tablet took over that role.
  One strange occurrence with the Google Assistant happened recently.  I’d been asking Google to shuffle music from my extensive library regularly, the strange thing was that “she” seemed to have developed an eighties fixation – Human Leaque, OMD, ABC, Howard Jones, Spandau Ballet and more, nothing modern. They say it’s not real Artificial Intelligence yet, just programmed algorithms but sometimes I wonder.
  When shuffling the whole collection I get some surprises as many of my albums are freebies from newspapers so I get something I wouldn’t seek out, or something I’d forgotten about. I don’t pay for a streaming subscription but if you do then the choice is immense, when I bought my first CD in 1996, or my first LP in the eighties, in the days of “allow 28 days for delivery” and waiting a week for a record shop to order an album I wouldn’t have believed that within thirty years you’d be able to pick any album from hundreds of thousands and play it instantly, and even buy it to keep the same way.

It was said in the fifties that technology would improve life and in many little ways it does so all the time – personally it’s wonderful to be able to sit in the summer on the sofa at night, the window open with a cool breeze, looking at the stars and listening all the most fitting songs from across my collection without having to move, change cds or make a compilation in advance. “This is heaven, to me.” (Madeleine Peyroux, from the album Careless Love)