From OK Computer to OK Google

World

Today I recieved a Radiohead album, it’s the second copy of OK Computer I’ve bought in my life but this one’s special, it has a second disc of b-sides and it came out last year to celebrate the TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARY of the original which I bought when it came out.

TWENTY YEARS?

Where the hell has it all gone.  For goodness sake.  Shakes head.

Anyway, my point, oh yes. I looked at it and thought about the title and thought about how much technology has changed in those twenty years and society with it (which is the core point of this blog).  The CD Walkman has become thirty-thousand songs stored on a phone, or millions on a streaming service.  Phones themselves have become electronic Swiss Army Knives and almost thin enough to be used as one.  We’ve gone from five TV channels in the UK to hundreds of channels showing mainly repeats, along with a seemingly endless choice of streaming media.  Texting has become Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Whatsapp (the latter three of which I don’t use and in the case of the last one I wouldn’t know what to do with).  Phone calls are becoming a thing of the past it seems with the younger generations in particular communicating via thumb rather than tongue these days.  However we are finally talking to computers, our eighties sci-fi dreams of being able to command the computer like Scotty on Star Trek are finally coming true, enabling us to make appointments, ask questions, play music and, of course, buy more things. All with the swiftness of a “Hey Siri”, “Alexa?” or “OK Google”…

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Too Many Ideas and Missing The Tree

Forest

Forest

I’m struggling again with productivity, I have too many proto-articles and as such when I sit down to write I get struck with something called Workload Paralysis which is basically the inability to begin because there are too many places to start. I also forget what I could write about as my notes app and notebook have too narrow a window to show me my options, I can’t see everything in one glance – I need an overview, a priority schedule – which is something that technology isn’t brilliant at.

As I can’t find space for a full size whiteboard I’ve bought a white clipboard and some fineline whiteboard pens – onto this clipboard I will write one-liners – article titles that is, not quips. This way I’m hoping to be able to get some inspiration without having to scan through pages of paper or lists of notes on a screen.

This is why I’m still a firm believer in the physical and tangible media in concert with technology rather than as a replacement across the board, just sometimes it’s easier to deal with words on paper, they’re often much quicker to access, handle or process. And in my case having the ideas list on a screen doesn’t just mean I can’t see the forest for the trees, I often can’t even see the tree.

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.

 

Everything’s Better With Bacon

Horse And Cart

Horse And Cart (Photo credit: foilman)

To be honest I quite like the adverts for the UK’s EE phone network featuring the always-connected Kevin Bacon, even if I’m not a fan of the name “EE” – at least I can still say I’m on Orange if anyone asks.  The latest ad dips into popular colloquialisms for its inspiration and shows Kev dragging a “shedload of data”.

My first thought was where they could go next with the idea:

“Why you lugging a cart of manure Kev?”

“That’s not manure, it’s data, it’s a metric shit-tonne of data.”

There you go EE, have this one on me.

Running on Sunshine

Solúcar PS10 es una planta solar termoeléctric...

Solúcar PS10 es una planta solar termoeléctrica por tecnología de torre, la primera en el mundo explotada comercialmente. Solucar PS10 is the first solar thermal power plant based on tower in the world that generate electricity in a commercial way. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am interested in cars, nice cars.  I’d particularly like a new Jaguar F-Type, an orange one, if anyone’s feeling generous.  I’m telling you this in case you think this post is in some way biased.

I’ve just read yet another article about another designer with “eco” credentials planning a zero-emission or in this case emission-free car.  This one was a hydrogen powered car but others have been fully electric.  I have a little issue with the idea that these cars have zero-emissions.  It’s a case of semantics.  Petrol, diesel and hybrid cars have a pipe at the back that makes you cough like you have a forty-a-day habit if you wrap your lips around it, electric and hydrogen cars don’t, hydrogen cars even put water back into the environment, combining the hydrogen with oxygen in the power production process.

All good yes?  Well, apart from indirect emissions.  Electric cars are charged from the mains which at the moment requires mostly fossil-fuel powered generation.  Hydrogen, although common in the universe has to be extracted here on Earth and that takes…  electricity, fossil-fuel, etc.

I’m discounting the environmental impacts of building the cars in the first place as even the advocates of these technologies don’t deny that.

The thing is that cars won’t be truly zero-emission until we can generate power widely without emissions.  Some nations are fortunate to have abundant geothermal or hydroelectric power resources but for the rest of us we need to look elsewhere.  Nuclear power is still controversial, though the technology is still being refined to be safer in the long-term and new thorium reactors can even use previously created waste plutonium.  Personally, for cars at least, I think hydrogen is the way forward and another emerging technology is the way to make it.  In hotter countries such as Spain large solar power stations (see above) have been built that focus the sun’s immense power onto arrays of receivers which can be used to heat water to drive generators and generate electricity.  If you use that electricity to power a plant that creates hydrogen then the power created from the Sun’s energy is portable beyond the locality of the power station.

To places like this where we’re enjoying our couple of weeks of sunshine.

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]

Format This

English: 8-inch, 5,25-inch, and 3,5-inch flopp...

English: 8-inch, 5,25-inch, and 3,5-inch floppy disks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people reading this may have at some point wondered why the hard drive in their computer is the C: drive, not A or B, not the first but third.  The answer of course is obsolescence, not planned but natural as technology has progressed.

I remember computers at school where the whole front of what would today be considered a desktop computer was just a pair of floppy disk drives, 5 1/4″ drives they were at the time, flat black plastic flexible squares that needed to be handled with care and would probably today just about hold a single grainy picture from a basic cameraphone.  I also remember the rise of 3 1/2″ floppy disks, the 1.44Mb disks which were the HD of their day – High Density that was.  These were the contents of the now abandoned A: and B: drives.   The problems of getting Windows 3.0 to read a new-fangled CD-ROM drive is a story for another time.

The thing is that today if I wanted to read something from one of these 5 1/4″ disks it would be difficult, if not impossible.  You can still buy external drives to read 3 1/2″ disks but how long before they’re gone too?  Admittedly much of the information I still have on these old disks is past its prime and most of the really important stuff I still have on my laptop today but some of it would be as good as gone forever if I didn’t transfer it to today’s media.  Even today’s storage has a finite life; hard drives die, home-burned CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs don’t last forever although new developments are on the horizon that claim to make disks that last for 1,000 years – we’ll see, or rather we won’t, but someone on a future edition of Time Team will and they’ll laugh at our clothes and feeble social networks and search engines.

Or will they?  The other problem with that old data on floppy disks is whether we have something to read it with.  Years ago we had a plethora of different wordprocessor file formats, spreadsheet formats, image formats and some of them, like JustWrite are as illegible to Microsoft Word today as Spanish is to me.  Qué?   Unless someone bothers to devise a universal convertor to rescue all these obscure file formats then the data is doomed.

I still have the ability to install the old software and manually copy over the text to LibreOffice which I use because it uses what has to be the future of our data – standardised formats and structures.  Many software packages still use proprietary formats for the raw data but can output a sharable and standard format – like JPEG images or MP4 video, whilst many office packages are moving to open standards like the Open Document Format which should extend the amount of time our letters and journals, notes and novels remain readable.  Then there’s the cloud again, services like Google Docs, Flickr, Facebook or Evernote storing data for you without needing to worry about file formats.  As long as the host is still there and the internet is still there your data could exist indefinitely if your account is passed down with the inheritance when you leave for the cloud yourself.

Which is a sobering thought, better get the to do list finished or it could become a puzzling historical artefact.

Be Careful What You Search For

Watching

Watching (Photo credit: Laddir)

You are being watched.  No, calm down, I didn’t mean in the real world, sit back down and stop looking behind your sofa.

For many years people have simultaneously worried about how their browsing habits were being tracked and perhaps used to monitor their activities while marvelled at how Amazon suggests new products for them based on their previous choices  – online data collection really is a double-edged sword.  In the UK we have a law where websites have to visibly inform you about browser cookie use and give you either a choice or instructions on how to enable them or otherwise.

The data collected by browsers is not always sent to advertisers, much is used today to improve services, make useful suggestions for stuff to buy, places to visit, people to friend on Facebook etc.  The data collected when you’re logged into Google’s many and varied services, for example, can be used by their Google Now service to provide real-time information relevant to you.  I was impressed when without being told my Nexus 7 knew where I worked and how long it would take to get there, giving me weather and travel information too.  My first reaction was “how did it know?”  I don’t take it to work, has it been talking to my phone?  Well, in a way, it used my contacts information, I think, I hope.  These computerised personal assistants like Google Now and Apple’s Siri are a wonder of our time, intelligently finding, collating and presenting information in truly intuitive ways, I’m still impressed whenever I ask my Nexus 7 what the weather’s going to be like tomorrow.

But the other day I discovered something about Google Now that could, in the right, or wrong circumstances be interesting or awkward.  I searched for Cromwell Weir on Google Maps on my laptop and later that evening noticed that my Nexus 7 was giving me, like the helpful little soul it is, travel information to Cromwell.  Later still I searched for a shop in Lincoln and again it was there saying “are you wanting to go there now?  I can show you where to go.”

Which is all very helpful until you’re searching for a hotel for a surprise weekend away for you and your other half on your PC while your tablet, in the hands of your beloved in the room next door is happily giving the game away.

So if you don’t want Google, or for that matter Siri if Apple’s assistant has similar abilities blabbing about your plans remember to log out before browsing.

The Sound of Silence

English: BMW Mini E (electric vehicle) at the ...

English: BMW Mini E (electric vehicle) at the 2010 Washington Auto Show (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Electric cars are becoming more popular, widespread and cheaper but safety campaigners feel that they’re too quiet for pedestrians to hear approaching – which therefore should be true too of cyclists, and rickshaws.  They have suggested that electric vehicles should make a noise to alert people to their presence, some kind of siren has been suggested, a beeping noise, verbal warnings.

The obvious thing to do, if they must make a sound, is to follow the lead of digital cameras’ reassuring shutter sound and the way cash machines whir while preparing your cash and perhaps, and this is out-there I know, they could make a noise like a car.  You could even download different engine sounds to make your family hatchback sound like a Ferrari.

That would be popular with the lads who currently put noisy exhausts on their Citroen Saxos.

Still Free After All These Years

36236699I’ve written a few books, I have only ever half-heartedly attempted to get one of them published – thinking that I’m not really a writer, more of the outsider thinking I talked about recently.  Writing these books though was enabled by free software.  I’d had an Amstrad PCW which was a word-processor but I only used it for programming at the time.  I didn’t write stories, despite being told at school by my last English teacher that I was a good fiction writer, because again I feared being laughed at.  By the time I decided to write again I’d moved onto a PC and suddenly I was confronted by word-processing software like Microsoft Word, WordPerfect and so on costing hundreds of pounds.

Thankfully, I got a free copy of Protext 4 for MS-DOS with a computer magazine.  This was a big deal in those days, free software was often written by hobbyists and tended to be utilities, text editors and drawing programs were mostly shareware which you could “try before you buy” and then there was the commercial packages with their eye-watering price tags.  Today my laptop cost less than them.  I used Protext for years, those who don’t remember early nineties computers may be amazed that you had to control the whole thing with the keyboard.  No mouse.  At all.  It was surprisingly quick to use though, no distractions of formatting and pictures, no internet, no emails, just you and your words.

I moved onto Windows word-processing when I worked for a PC shop and got a cheap copy of Lotus WordPro which we used to bundle with the computers we built.  I’m only now moving onto the next big thing – which is something we kind of hoped for but didn’t expect back in the days of ordering a 1.44Mb floppy disk of freeware programs from a paper catalogue.

Big complicated software like Office packages take big teams of programmers or a lot of time, or both, to write and in the old days collaboration was more difficult but now there are organisations like Mozilla, Apache and others who organise teams of coders who volunteer their time and skills to create fantastic free software like the Firefox browser (which I’m using at this moment) and the Microsoft Office-compatible OpenOffice (and it’s offshoot LibreOffice).  These charitable foundations and teams who code for the enjoyment and achievement of it are creating ever more sophisticated software and giving it away for free, only perhaps politely asking for a donation towards their efforts which flies in the face of the idea that people will only create something if they are financially rewarded.  A large number of the coders on these projects are professionals volunteering in their spare time too.

There will always be a market for commercial software as many people and businesses either want or need to use software that has become industry standard no matter how closely compatible the free software is, and often the commercial software just has features that free competitors either haven’t got or can’t have due to patents.  There is also the issue of future updates and technical support though with the use of online forums you can usually get an answer to any problem you have with free software pretty quickly and even updates and bug fixes are generally quick in appearing.

With the advent of smartphones and apps there has been an explosion of free software yet again.  The centralised nature of the App Store and Play Store has encouraged people to learn to code and get something they’ve made out there, just like the old days of PCs, as it’s now even easier to get your app seen and used.  Of course much that appears to be free often isn’t quite free and many apps are also supported by advertising or the dreaded in-app purchase which I’ll write about in a future post.

Sometimes though some people expect free software when it isn’t at all though as other companies have shown giving away old software can be a canny move, introducing people to the brand, giving them skills which can lead to employment using the current version etc.  Serif in the UK have always been good at this, every version of their software I’ve used has been either a free version or more recently a two-version-older copy at a bargain price, and Google’s products like Chrome, Google Earth, even the Android O/S are free because they encourage you to use Google’s search products.  Even Microsoft now gives away many very good pieces of software like Live Essentials and Security Essentials.

So long live free software, what would some of us do without you.