Change is afoot

I’m not really old enough to remember much about the lead up Labour’s 1997 landslide victory in 1997, and so the feeling of hope that our society could change for the better is not one I’m overly familiar with. Great to have it back.

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Is North Korea a distraction?

Gripping article in this week’s New Scientist on the gradual escalation of nuclear arms between the word’s superpowers, and this:

In June 2016, the British submarine Vengeance test-fired a Trident missile, the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Something went badly wrong, and the missile may have veered towards the US.

The missile was not carrying its nuclear warheads and was destroyed. The UK government has remained silent on what might have caused the incident, but “the failed Trident test is consistent with cyber interference,” says Paul Ingram of the British American Security Information Council, a think tank in London.

New Scientist

Some thoughts on the new Apple Watch Series 3

Apple Watch (original)
My favourite gadget

Finally, it’s here – a smartwatch that has it’s own cellular connection and so doesn’t require you have your phone with for it key functionality to work –  while also not looking like an ASBO tag.

I’m impressed that Apple were able to cram this new functionality into a watch that’s almost the same size as the previous generation. The ability to go out for a run, to a gig or to the pub for the evening and leave your phone at home is a game changer.  Being able to listen to music, get directions, take calls and respond to calls without anything on your person is something I imagine to be a very freeing experience. It’s still early days, and I expect the new watch to have significantly worse battery life when the cellular connection is used. Just as the current generation suffers when you use the GPS and heart rate monitoring functionaries, the new models will see less battery life if you use them away from your iPhone a lot of the time. In two or three years time however, when battery and processor efficiency has improved even more, these watches will be capable of  replacing our phones for many of their core uses. Will people want to replace their phones though? No camera, no web browser, no games. I doubt it. Having the option though, can be only a good thing. If you can leave your phone at home more and more often, you might even consider a bigger phone, or just having a tablet-sized device instead of a phone. Or perhaps we’ll just pull down out Apple Glasses when we need a bigger screen.

So will I be upgrading to the Series 3? In short, no. I bought an Apple Watch last year, and I’m going to make it last.⌚️

Trust Me, I’m a Doctor.

I’m beginning to come around to the idea of cancelling my Netflix subscription. With the latest series of House of Cards being, well, dismal, and other new shows starting to feel a bit tied and formulaic (Ozark was good, but it was basically Breaking Bad) it seems to have lost its shine, and don’t get me started on the quality of films available. One additional reason though, is high quality of drama coming out coming out of the BBC these days. The latest of which aired recently:  Trust Me.

About a nurse who fakes her identity to get a job as a doctor, it’s a nail-biting thriller that forces viewers to confront a fear that anybody who’s ever had complex medical treatment or surgery must have had at one point; does the doctor really know what they’re doing?  The subtle social commentary is not lost either, with the nurse’s life in a small terrace house hunting around in her purse for small change transformed into a bourgeois life of a doctor living in a swanky apartment and frequenting dinner parties.

I forget who came up with the adage that in a TV or movie, you can always tell whether a character is well written if you can imagine them staring in their spinoff show. It holds true, and demonstrates the excellent writing in this drama, as indeed most of the secondary characters could hold their own if called upon.

So I recommend anyone who can catch this while it’s available on iPlayer.

The future is not easy

Have you noticed lot of people lecturing about how the near future is going to be full of self-driving cars and robot doctors? The past shows us however, that predicting the future is not easy, and rarely do long-term predictions about technology come true. As this video and article demonstrate fantastically.

Humanoid robots exist alongside err… payphones? I’m still waiting for an electric belt that adapts to bodily and climatic conditions though…

From Insurgent to Blade Runner: why is the future on film always so grim?

Every Valley

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I’m really enjoying this album from Public Service Broadcasting. A history lesson woven between masterful songs. Songs that tell the story of the rise and fall of the coal mining industry in Wales. The record is so emotional in places, that much like another classic, the Manic Street Preacher’s The Holy Bible, it’s not an album for any occasion – at times it can be very depressing, but this is what makes it so brilliant.

AirPods

When Apple first announced the AirPods there was a lot of hyperbole in the media about them being Apple’s next big ‘wearable’ device. For a company that famously said that speeds an feeds did not matter, there was a of emphasis on the fact these headphones contained a “W1” chip that could do all sorts of smarts other headphones could not.

I use Bluetooth headphones extensively: at work I have a pair of over-the-ear noice cancelling headphones that double up as a headset for making calls. They are excellent at both cancelling the noise around me so I can’t hear it when listening to music, and also at removing external noise so other people can’t hear me when I’m phoning them. I also use a different pair for running – they are average sound quality, but they are sweat proof and let in external noise making them safe for road-running. Both these headsets have an onboard chip: The big ones I use in the office are able to tell me if I start speaking and my microphone is muted, alleviating the frustration of sharing your greatest idea on a conference call and wondering why nobody even acknowledged you. The sports pair aren’t as sophisticated but can tell me how much battery life I have left, telling me there is some smarts going on inside the headphones. So having ‘smarts’ inside a pair of headphones is nothing new. I’m sure they could come up with a brand name for their silicone chips to, but to me, the W1 in the AirPods is meaningless in of itself.

So what makes the AirPods better than any other headphones? It’s the integration between hardware and software – Apple’s usual strength. In this case not only the integration between hardware and software on the AirPods themselves, but also between the AirPods’ software and the iOS device they’re paired to.

My biggest frustration with existing Bluetooth headphones is that they stay connected to my phone when I’m not wearing them. How many times have I tried to use Siri, and realised after 3 attempts that it’s not working because I’ve left my Bluetooth headphones on and they’re still connected but in my gym bag. AirPods solve this beautifully.

The other big problem with Bluetooth that AirPods solve is pairing. Recent Bluetooth headphones are not difficult to pair: there’s no passcode (it was always 0000 anyway so it seemed pointless) it’s just a case of putting the headset into ‘pair mode’ and then choosing it from the Bluetooth menu. Unless you’ve paired it with another device since you last used it with the one you’re trying to use it with now, in which case you need to un-pair and re-pair. Usually you need to see a few error message before you realise this is the case. This of course means if you want to use them with that other device again you’ll need to repeat the process. Not a big hardship, but a small piece of friction that meant I rarely bothered to use my headphones with other devices. AirPods make switching devices as simple as selecting ‘Marc’s AirPods’ from a menu. No pairing, no need to remember about which device I used last. It’s not quite as magic as I had hoped for – it doesn’t just know I’m using an iPad now and so switch automatically, but hey you can’ have everything.

So overall I am impressed with my third set of Bluetooth headphones. The AirPods won’t replace my headset at work for calls, because I need noise cancelling at work. I will use them for running, walking and working out however. They are especially good around the house while doing chores etc. Their frictionless nature means I’ll use them whenever I would have just use the phone’s external speaker before. The quality of phone calls is surprisingly low, making me think Apple’s switching to a different Bluetooth profile or something. Hopefully this will be fixed in a firmware update.

Some other random thoughts:

– Siri is pretty unreliable, it’s generally not worth the hassle. In the rare case that it understands what I meant, the phone will often respond by displaying an answer on the screen, defeating the point of using the headset.
– They seem very secure in the ears.
– They look silly, but so did white earbuds when they first came out.
– i sometimes feel a bit self-conscious when wearing them, especially if I’m on a train wearing an Apple Watch and reading on an iPad. I feel like I’m in an Apple advertisement (though I’m not good looking enough to actually be in one).
– It seems weird that if I go for a run with my Apple Watch, and my iPhone, and use Siri on the AirPods, I can’t start a workout using AirPods because they’re connected to the phone. This says more about Siri’s inconsistencies than the AirPods.
– Opening the case near an iPhone causes a menu to show on the phone with details about the AirPods’ battery life. It doesn’t do this on iPads and Macs, presumably because it needs NFC, which they don’t have, but I’m not sure.

Running Gadgets

I’ve been getting into running in a big way over the past couple of years, and completed my first Half Marathon recently, I thought why not write a post about the various gadgets I use when running.

Apple Watch

Anyone who is into running will no doubt own a running watch of some sort. One I don’t see that much at events and running clubs is the Apple Watch. For me, the Series 2 with its built in GPS was a no-brainier. It’s a decent-looking watch that can serve as a daily fitness tracker, while also coming into its own as a way to measure runs. Starting a run is simple, and while on a run you can see your vital stats: current pace, average pace, heart rate, calories and distance are all available and you can add up to 4 stats to the screen at once. It’s actually quite nice that you can customise this screen, and and even remove stats so there are fewer than four, as sometimes it can feel like information overload. I have just my current pace and my heart rate. A handy, if not a little hidden feature is the ability to double-tap the workout screen and set a new ‘section’ – essentially a split. Once the run is finished a map of the route taken is shown, the marker is coloured from red through to yellow and then green, showing your pace from slower, average to fast. The weather forecast at the time alongside times for each kilometre (or miles if you have it set that way). That’s about it really – the Apple Watch isn’t able alert you when you’re drifting off your target pace as some dedicated running watches can, and the battery life will be severely drained if you run for more than about 30 minutes. My biggest complaint however is the reliability of the heart rate sensor. It seems to really struggle once you start to sweat, or if you’re running in cold, rainy or windy conditions (I live in the UK, so that’s basically 8 months of the year). Often I’ll look down at my wrist and see the heart rate greyed out where it can’t get a reading. Placing a finger under the watch to clear the sweat away seems to help, but it may well just be a placebo effect. On the plus side, being a fully fledged smartwatch, there are plenty of 3rd party apps available that could fill in at least some of these gaps. Nike Run Club is one of these apps, I’ve not tried it, but it may well (or at least could) implement features such as pace alerts. Of course as someone who was an iPhone developer a few years ago, I could roll my sleeves up and have a go at filling the gap myself, but that would be a lot of time and effort, but it’s good to know the option is there.
Overall, its a good running watch but probably not as good as a dedicated one, but then you probably wouldn’t want to wear a dedicated running watch all day long. So for me the balance of having a watch that is also my main watch outweighs the fact there are better running watches out there.

Wahoo Tickr – heart rate tracker

To mitigate the Apple Watch’s unreliable heart rate tracking, I invested in a separate Bluetooth heart rate monitor. It was also a good opportunity to get a ‘second opinion’ of my heart rate while running. As a former sufferer of Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) I am fascinated by my heart rate, both when resting and when I’m exercising. The Tickr seemed like an affordable option that promised to work with the Apple Watch, and also with its own app for use without the Apple Watch. It seems to measure my heart rate accurately, at least while at rest. I’ve not been able to measure it manually while I’m exercising to compare, as when I stop to take my pulse my heart rate inevitability comes down. At rest though it’s as good as my manual reading. I also get the feeling it’s more precise than the Apple Watch when running. The Apple Watch seems to always show my heart rate as a familiar set of numbers: 52, 60, 82, 170 etc. while the Tickr will show a wider set of readings, making me think that it’s doing less averaging over time.
My only complaint would be the way it’s worn. It’s a strap you wear around your chest. I’ve found that the system for adjusting it is easy to accidentally change, but not easy to notice that you may have somehow loosened it. At least 5 times I’ve been out running and had to either stop to adjust it, or in some cases take it off because I didn’t want to ruin my time messing about with a heart rate tracker. One time I actually dropped the tracker without realising (it was hold and my hands were numb), thankfully, someone from my running club was behind me and noticed! This is the fatal flaw in the product, it needs a better adjustment mechanism and isn’t susceptible to accidental/gradual loosening over time.

Headphones

I’ve been using the Plantronics Backbeat Fit since summer 2015. They are still going strong, and have survived many hot, sweaty summer runs, as well as cold, wet and windy winter runs. They use Bluetooth, and so the only wire is the one that goes around the back of your head from one ear to the other. This means the phone can be placed in a pocket or pouch, or even cooler, I can leave the phone at home and play music straight from my Apple Watch. Unfortunately Apple doesn’t support Podcasts on the Apple Watch, so I usually end up bringing the phone with me on long runs anyway. Unlike earbuds, the Backbeat Fit’s speakers point upwards into your ear, rather than directly down into your eat canal. This means you can still hear clearly what’s going on around you. This is great when running outside, in fact it is quite literally is a lifesaver when running on roads with no pavement. This design isn’t as good when you’re in a noisy gym that insists on playing awful dance music at maximum volume, but on balance I like the fact they are more open that most headphones. Even after 18 months of regular usage, they still get over 5 hours of battery life. Upon powering them on, a little voice tells you how much time you have remaining which is pretty cool. Like most Bluetooth headphones they do suffer from some Bluetooth quirks. Annoyingly if I leave them on but take them off, they stay connected to my phone, so I often find myself trying to invoke Siri using my phone’s microphone, and getting frustrated because it’s not understanding me, before realising the reason it can’t make out what I’m saying it because it’s trying to use the microphone on the headphones, which are in my gym bag.

And that is ist. I’m not going to go into non-gadgety stuff like trainers and running clothes.. because, well, I don’t really find any of that very interesting. Hope this was useful.  🙂

Apple Pay works over £30 in the UK

It’s still quite a common belief that Apple Pay only works for transactions under £30. Unlike standard contactless, there is no limit on Apple Pay transitions. The caveat being that the merchant need to have the latest kit, but many do. Your card provider may also decline unusually high transactions, but there is no set limit.

This is good as it brings closer a day when I don’t need to carry around my wallet. One of my biggest anxieties about not carrying a wallet is running low on fuel and not being able to refill my car. To that end, I’ve been trying out various petrol stations to see whether Apple Pay works over £30. Anecdotally,I’ve found that in BP stations the contactless sensor is switched off for transactions over £30, so waving your phone or watch in front of it does nothing. In Shell, it does work – usually to the surprise of the cashier  who was halfway through telling me “It won’t work for transactions over £30.” I’ve also paid for food in some local pubs, again to the surprise of the waiter.

So try it out in your local shops and see if they’re using the latest kit. You might find you can leave the wallet at home most days. Welcome to the future!