Gadgets, Music, Outdoors, Society, Tech, Work

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.

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Nature, Science, Tech

Of Stars & Smartphones

Stars

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I have been interested in Astronomy and space in general for a long time, I remember the first Space Shuttle launch, watching Space 1999 and Blake’s 7, and Patrick Moore on The Sky at Night. I have only briefly owned a basic telescope but still like looking at the stars, especially now as where I live, on the edge of the countryside, has the advantage of darker skies at night away from streetlights. I find it very relaxing.

Recently I found that a moving light in the sky was the International Space Station – I felt I should have waved – and just the other night I looked out of the front window and saw the moon accompanied by two “stars” which turned out to be Jupiter and Saturn – the thought that these two bright points of light in the sky were two massive planets millions of miles away is still awe inspiring to me.

How do you find out what these points of light are though?

I still own two plastic discs which would be called old tech now called Planispheres which consist of a movable oval shaped window over a map of all the stars visible in the night sky from my latitude, you rotate the window round to match the date and time and it shows what stars can be seen then and where they are in the sky. Useful and non-dependant on batteries, it was still supplemented with technology.

In the nineties I received, attached to a computer magazine, a small program called Skyglobe. It was a pre-Windows program running in MS-DOS and gave a full, interactive view of the night sky on the computer, it could update in real time, showed the planets and the moon, the shapes of the constellations and you could even speed up time to see how the stars changed in the sky over the course of the year, all thanks to the wholly predictable nature of the motion of the Earth against the stars and planets. It was a fantastic piece of software, it had an elegant, uncluttered user interface that could be almost entirely hidden to just show the stars, operated via the keyboard, and it fitted on a single floppy disk. I still have a copy today that can be made to work, once you convince Windows to run it.

Even Skyglobe though has been superseded. On my tablet I now have a program (sorry, app) called Stellarium that looks fundamentally the same except that it has fancier graphics with a landscape rather than just a horizon line. This app can update in real time too, but to change the direction you’re viewing you can, of course, swipe and drag the image around rather than using arrow keys, it’s also just a little bit more portable than a PC with a CRT screen was before. One major change though is its ability to use the tablet (or phone’s) sensors to detect where you’re pointing it and show the same region of sky on the screen so you don’t even need to know which way’s north anymore.

Combined with telescopes that have been able to know where they are and point to any star you choose since the early 2000s amateur astronomy has embraced the digital – the old technology of mirrors and glass guided by new technology of GPS, smartphones and tablets and all driven by our fascination with knowing what’s out there.

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Photography, Tech

The Best Camera is…

Camera

Image by Joshua_Willson from Pixabay

…the one you have with you.

I was walking to the supermarket one Sunday morning. I glanced down a narrow lane between two shops, which leads roughly from the castle to the market place and thought for a second that I was either hallucinating or having a Doctor Who moment for walking down the lane was a company of armed Roundhead soldiers. Newark on Trent, of course, was very important during the English Civil War and we have the National Civil War Centre and regular events reenacting battles and so on.

It was a lovely sunny morning and it would have made a great photo if I’d had my Olympus DSLR camera and long lens with me to get a nice out of focus background, but as I was going shopping I didn’t even have a compact camera in my pocket, and as for the camera in my mobile phone at the time – not even worth considering.

Today as well as my DSLR I have a few compact cameras – my larger zoom one, a slim one that will fit in a bag pocket, and a really pocketable but relatively basic one – and a bridge camera for taking with me in different situations when I know there might be good shots but I don’t want to take the full SLR kit, like when I go out on the mountain bike. I tend to take my old, battered Lumix zoom compact mostly though as it’s a good, dependable all-rounder.

Then there is my smartphone which has a really good camera on it for when I have nothing else with me, though I’ve not really tried anything like the missed Roundhead photo with it.

The phone makers say that the phone cameras can now do anything a DSLR can, that “everyone’s a photographer now” but I’m just familiar with my big camera and know how to quickly get the photo I want from it instinctively using buttons and dials without having to mess around with on-screen controls.

I miss less opportunities now as I can at least get something but there are though still occasional times when I feel that a shot really needs the DSLR and long or fast lens, and those are still frustrating.

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Cars, Gadgets, Society, Tech, Transport, Uncategorized

Get a Dashcam for Only £4*

Light Trails

Light Trails

(* plus one old Android smartphone, not included)

I only drive my car once a week, generally, when I visit my folks, twenty-something miles up the A1.  However, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said “I wish I could have recorded that” after some idiot has done something daft and/or dangerous.

Dashcams have gained in popularity over the last few years, overcoming fears that people might take exception to being filmed while driving (ok, maybe that’s just my fear), due in part to the videos posted from russia of often spectacular footage of crashes and meteorites.  Of course, apart from the draw of gaining YouTube views the footage is handy for insurance or police evidence reasons in case of an accident.

I’ve looked at various options over the years and decided that I couldn’t justify the more expensive (better reviewed, supposedly better quality) ones and yet the cheaper ones seemed to get mixed reviews and needed to be powered from the car to work properly.  The problem with a wired cam for me is that my convoluted smartphone charging and combined Bluetooth receiver/FM Transmitter combo setup takes up all the USB charging ports I’ve got in the car.

Then a couple of weeks ago I had a revelation, via a Gizmodo UK article on reusing supposedly outmoded gadgets.

I have two smartphones, the older of the two Xperias being semi-retired after becoming brain-addled a few years back, lacking storage and running very slowly suddenly, for eighteen months it’s been a receive-only connection to my old phone number for texts from the network pleading with my to top up my credit.  But as mentioned in the article it could serve as a dashcam with one free app.

So off I went.  Firstly I turned sync off on  most of the Google services as I don’t want it downloading historical emails.  Next I deleted any apps that were never going to be used again (including, it seemed, the one that had caused its memory and speed issues – it’s like having my old phone back).  Finally I installed the CamOnRoad dashcam app and after a few settings tweaks to save the videos onto the SD card it was up and running.  Two advantages to this Xperia dashcam is a great camera and long battery life – it’s cordless!

The last part of the solution was mounting it on the windscreen.  The next day at the supermarket I found a £4 smartphone holder.  The first test showed this wobbled too much on the road but a simple block of rubber jammed between the dashboard top and the phone holder kept everything stable and free of seasickness-inducing motion.

The only other issue was finding the videos on the phone to copy to the computer but putting the phone in “pretend I’m a USB disk” mode (Mass Storage Mode to be precise) sorted that out – after much head-scratching and cries of “where the blazes are you hiding them?”  Or words to that effect.

I can also still use the old phone for one of the other tips in the article too – as a Google Play Music streaming device with either headphones or one of my many Bluetooth speakers.

Technology becomes seemingly outdated quickly today, the hardware can’t cope with new software, they run out of space, but if you can’t or don’t want to throw devices away or sell them then there are people coming up with creative and useful ways to give this tech a second life.

 

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Psychology, Society, Tech

Hanging On

iPhone Original/3G/4/5

iPhone Original/3G/4/5 (Photo credit: Yutaka Tsutano)

As I write this many, many, many Apple devotees will be glued to their laptop screens, sorry, MacBook screens or iPads relishing the latest “one more thing” revealed by Tim Cook*.  I’ve not gone out of my way to have a look at the new iPhone(s) or whatever, I’m neither an Apple fan or an Apple hater though I’m not a fan of some of their actions surrounding patents though that’s something for another time.

What I’m thinking about is the trend of getting a new gadget every year.

Moore’s Law is an observation that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit tends to double every two years or so, this is usually misquoted as computing power doubles every eighteen-months.  There was a period recently when phone manufacturers seemed to be releasing new phones every month, though in truth they often catered for different markets and budgets, now though every major phone or tablet is refreshed every year, it’s like Christmas – literally, for the manufacturers, in June, August, September.

Computers are less obvious because there is still a steady stream of new models with slightly different cases, tweaked internals, new chipsets.  The common factor is that often the jump in actual power between last year and this isn’t that great, and usually the main difference in phones has been screen size and resolution.

Still though some people feel the need to buy again and often the reason they give is that the new one is so much faster than the old one.  Sometimes I’m sure this is true – as new software and features make an old phone, tablet or pc seem slow, if you’re trying to watch an HD video on an older phone for example but sometimes it can simply be that over time the device starts to feel slow.  When you first got it it was blindingly fast, menus appeared instantaneously and web pages were super-quick to load.  Now though you’re waiting forever.  What’s changed?

Ok, sometimes new software has features that cause an old laptop to chug, some websites (Flickr is a personal annoyance) have redesigned in such a way that you need quite nifty hardware to get a smooth experience, and of course you might only be able to watch a video in SD.  Much of the time though nothing has changed except your perception, you get used to the menu appearing, your memory of the previous computer fades into the mists of time and you don’t have anything to compare your current computer to but…

…the shiny new one at work, or in PC World.  The difference is miniscule, the slow website might still be slow on your new PC but confirmation bias will tell you it’s still faster.

My laptop is from 2008 and with the exception of a couple of websites (do I need to mention Flickr again) it’s still fast enough for everything I do, even my new copy of Photoshop Elements.  My Nexus 7 is less than a year old and has been superseded by a new N7 with an even higher resolution screen – I won’t be “upgrading” because I don’t really need to watch films in even more sparkly high-res on a small screen than before.  My phone is similarly a year old and still feels nippy and crisp, it still does everything I need it to do and I don’t feel the shame of having “last year’s phone” that drives many people to upgrade.  I know that one day my laptop will either completely die or the web will get too much for it to cope with, then I’ll upgrade,  Sometimes it seems that the only upgrade people need is to their need to define themselves by their possessions or their patience, though it does seem that that’s something lacking everywhere these days.

Perhaps I’m in the minority, there will no doubt be lengthy queues outside Apple stores soon.

* – yes, I know “One More Thing” was Steve’s thing, not Tim’s.

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Tech, Uncategorized

Tracing Lost Tech

MSI laptop computer

MSI laptop computer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve had the ability to track, locate and remotely disable stolen cars and vans for a while but attaching the tracker to your laptop just wasn’t practical but now, thanks to our increasingly connected world it’s becoming possible.

Today it’s inevitable that, unless it’s stripped down for parts, a smartphone, tablet or laptop will connect to the internet somehow and it’s then that modern tech can call home for help.  Smartphones can be equipped with apps – iPhones have the Find my iPhone feature which can be used to track and remotely wipe a stolen, or lost phone – for Android you have apps like Where’s My Droid, Android Lost and Plan B all of which can be used to find and wipe them too.  All of these apps have varying features but they include providing GPS coordinates, alarms, taking photos with the camera, activating the ringer (in case it’s nearby) and preventing apps being changed – in case someone has stolen it and tries to get rid of the tracker.  Plan B is different in that it is installed to the phone after it’s stolen – you download it to your phone via the web access version of the Play store and once installed it sends its location to your Gmail account.  This last one made possible by the cloud integration of devices these days and being able to send to your device rather than loading things onto it.

For laptops you can do similar things with apps like Prey which can track your device via IP addresses, you can view webcam shots to try to identify a culprit or location, you can lock the computer remotely, change wallpaper, display warnings and notices and wipe browser data, which is fine unless the thief has already wiped the computer.

Digital cameras can be located roughly by searching for their serial numbers online.  How this works is that if someone takes a photo with your camera and uploads it to a photo sharing site or anywhere else that preserves the metadata – all the information on which camera and lens took the photo and what settings were used – then you should be able to find it by matching the serial number stored in the photo.  Again it will only provide clues as to who has your gear, the police would have to approach the website hosting the images to get any details of who uploaded them.

Information from all these sources can be provided to the police to investigate, it’s never wise to try to track down the person who has your gear, sometimes it could work out bad for you or you might end up accusing someone who innocently found or bought the thing.

One thing to remember is to mark gear if possible with your phone number – never your home address as this can show a thief that A) you have expensive kit in your house and B) you’re not at home right now, and they know where you live.   On cameras and phones take a picture of a piece of paper with your phone number and possibly a message saying that if they’re reading the message it means that the device has been lost or stolen and asking them to contact you – a thief would delete this of course, if they noticed it.

Another tip is to photograph all your kit, log the serial numbers and store this information securely both online and printed if possible, again this can help to locate, identify and most importantly return your tech to you.

As many people have said though, as the chances of getting the actual device back are often slim, the best use of most of these apps is simply to wipe or disable the device, making it either unusable to the thief, making their life difficult, or at the very least removing your personal data – which could in so many ways be more valuable to them which is another good reminder to set a strong login password on your PC too.

Updated:  I’ve just been sent a link to an entertaining tale of why you shouldn’t steal a hacker’s computer – it’s worth a watch, even if you’re not a techy person and shows how even not having a login password can have it’s uses [YouTube]  Many thanks Alasdair.

[Lifehacker has more advice here]

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