Back to: Repurposing Memory | Forward to: A world-building puzzler

Clickbait spasm: 14 gizmos I used in 2015

I haven't blogged about tech in a while: maybe that's overdue for a correction. As you probably know I used to be a tech/IT freelance journalist, and the occasional residual spasm prompts me to go back to it. This blog isn't Ars Technica but on the other hand there's no editor yelling at me to file copy regularly or stick to a fixed format or optimize for clickbait, so here's my logorrhoeic take on fourteen gizmos I played with in 2015 and what I made of them—Without continual click-throughs, ads, or slow-to-load images because I'm a textual kind of guy. Ahem: continued below the cut.

(Note that I could write an even longer clickbait list of software and cloud services. But in this one, I'm sticking to hardware, because it's a little easier to figure out what makes the cut.)

1. Livescribe+ Smart Pen

I hate writing by hand (I'm a lefty and do the crooked hold-pen-from-above-and-drag thing) and my previous experience of smartpens wasn't, shall we say, promising, but much to my surprise this one works for me so much that I've actually got a use for it.

If you haven't met Livescribe pens before, they're basically a pen. Writes on paper, that sort of thing. However, if you use it with Livescribe's own special paper, which carries a special dot pattern, the tiny camera under the ballpoint tip tracks where the pen is writing or drawing. (Yes, they want to sell you pads and notebooks. But you can also print your own Livescribe paper from free PDFs.) Paired via bluetooth to a suitable host computer (really, an iOS or Android device) it uploads your scribbles to an app which can do handwriting recognition and either save them as PDFs or PNG images or stream them to other apps (I have mine hooked up to forward everything to my Evernote account). The earlier Livescribe pen I tried back around 2011 was really rather annoying (it had a display, a set of headphones, an app store, and a proprietary charge cable—lots of kipple to carry around or lose), but the Livescribe+ gets it about right. It has one control (an on/off/pair switch in a ring), one LED, charges over micro-USB, and it's fairly simple to use. It's designed to do just one thing, and that thing is to digitize your scribbles.

Actually, I lied: it has a second capability. These pens also include microphones, and you can configure it to record your mumbling as you scrawl, so that you can replay them as a "pencast"—showing an evolving page of text and graphics with a commentary track. If I was attending lectures on a regular basis, or giving them in front of a class, this would be a killer tool for lecture notes; but as it is, I have another use for it.

Thing is, I write fiction. And a perennial problem I have is how to do mind-mapping—to draw diagrams and doodles that join up complex ideas on screen in a form I can refer back to. Outlining software like Omnioutliner is great up to a point, for linear/hierarchical texts, but for complex stuff (cyclic graphs with labels and nodes, whether directed or otherwise) you really need a mind mapping tool. However, my experience of them is generally that they're either inflexible or have a steep learning curve, or both. Sometimes there's must no substitute for a notebook and a pen, but I hate not being able to keep all my resources for a current writing project bundled up in a Scrivener project. The Livescribe+ gives me a simple paper notebook that dumps diagrams into Evernote (or exports into Dropbox) and can even do reasonable handwriting recognition on my crappy scrawl. I'm not about to write my next novel longhand, but being able to include handdrawn freeform graphics with searchable text and audio notes in my workflow is a definite plus point.

2. Fujitsu ScanSnap ix500 Scanner

Actually, the ScanSnap ix500 isn't new; I've been using one of its predecessors, the portable ScanSnap 300, for several years—however, the ix500 is now available at a reasonable price (around £260 if you look around) rather than the £500+ it cost when it was introduced.

What it is: it's a colour duplex scanner with a 50-page automatic document feeder, USB 3, and wifi. In other words, it's as boring a piece of kit as one might hope for—an office appliance.

What makes it different is a bunch of little things. Drivers for Windows and OSX are expected, but there are also support apps available for iOS and Android. You can pair the scanner with a phone or tablet via wifi and scan directly to them (the exact inverse of the process you would use with a smartphone-friendly wireless printer). The scanner can create searchable PDFs as it scans, or scan to a (slightly typo-prone) MS Word document. If you use a desktop machine with it you get a cornucopia of options: send a scan straight to email or printer, archive it somewhere, scan to Evernote, and so on. Oh, and it's fast. My first office scanner, an HP device in the early noughties, could scan maybe one side of A4 per minute. This beast gulps down double-sided pages and scans up to 50 sides per minute to PDF.

Some of you might wonder why I bother with a Livescribe+ if I've got the ix500: wouldn't it be easier to carry a regular pen and paper around and feed the paper to the scanner? Well, yes—except the scanner is about the same size as an inkjet printer and doesn't travel well. Conversely: if I have the Livescribe+, why bother with a scanner?

Here's one use case: before my publishers went entirely digital with their workflow (circa 2012), part of the job of prepping a book for publication involved the author checking the copy editor's draft manuscript by hand then mailing it home: about a ream of printed paper covered in red ink. As you can imagine, if an MS got eaten by the postal service hilarity ensued (because there went about two weeks' work). So I took to scanning my CEMs fairly early, and avoided tears before bedtime twice in 5 years ... but using the earlier ScanSnap (which had a ten sheet feeder) meant the process took about two hours per book. (And it needed to be repeated a month or two later, when the page proofs came back from the typesetter.) This scanner? It came along just after that step in my workflow went away, hopefully for good, which is deeply annoying because I reckon it would reduce the chore from 2 hours to 5 minutes.

Here's another use case: keeping scans of (signed) book publishing contracts, keeping financial records, scanning bills and invoices, all the boring office stuff that's part of running a business that still requires a paper trail. Paper isn't obsolete yet, and this gadget just makes handling it so much easier.

What this scanner isn't good for is of course digitizing your old photo collection or scanning books. No, seriously: it's a specialist, designed to gulp down a stack of office documents. If you want to scan books or digitize photos, you really need a different type of scanner—unless you're ready to take a guillotine to the book in question, or laboriously use the supplied transparency sleeve with each photo. (It can do the job, in both cases: it's just not designed for it.)

3. Anker PowerPort 6 USB charger

When I travel I typically do so with a phone, a tablet, and (if I plan on working) a laptop. There may be other gadgets travelling with me that need recharging: the Livescribe+ pen, a bluetooth speaker for listening to music, a portalbe bluetooth keyboard for the tablet, and maybe other things. It's common to find a hotel room with only one or two mains electrical outlets available for the guests, and irritating to carry half a dozen chargers, so what should I do?

Well, as of 2015 my travel laptop is a Macbook—the 12" model with a retina screen that charges over a USB-C type cable. And all the other items I just mentioned can also charge off a USB power supply, albeit one that supports current level negotiation: if I'm using an iPhone or iPad they require a lightning-to-USB adapter, but those are both cheap and tiny.

So I've finally hit charger nirvana, which is a single power brick that I can plug everything into simultaneously and which runs off any input voltage from 100v (Japan) through 110v (the USA) to 230v (UK/Europe). It's reasonably well made and (per teardowns) supplies fairly clean power over six USB sockets. It can deliver 60 watts, and 2.5 amps per socket (enough for an iPad) or up to 12 amps overall (enough to recharge the Macbook). It has a detachable standard two-pin power cord so my travel charger bag contains three short mains cables: a euro head, a US head, and a ThinPlug folding-head power lead (British mains plugs being, shall we say, robust but not compact: this one is certified BS 1363 compliant, because 230 volts are not your friend). I keep one for travel in a bag with six 30cm USB A-to-micro-USB cables, a type-A-to-USB-C cable, and a few Lightning adapters, and it saves roughly a kilogram of weight from my luggage (by replacing a laptop charger, multiple device chargers with interchangeable international plugs, and/or multi-way mains adapters). And if you wonder why saving a kilogram might be important to me, it's because my front door is 64 steps up from ground level without an elevator ...

4. 12" Macbook (2015 model)

Back in 2008 when Apple introduced the Macbook Air, it was roundly derided for being underpowered, woefully short on expansion options and plug-in ports, and overpriced on top. Steve Jobs apparently expected people to pay more money for less weight, rather than cramming more and more functionality into the heaviest casing that customers would willingly carry. Now, seven years and one major design facelift later, the Macbook Air isn't just the backbone of Apple's laptop range—it has come down in price, up in battery life, performance, and connectivity options (two USB ports rather than one, and a Thunderbolt port!) ... and spawned an entire category of Windows-based imitators called Ultrabooks. Because it turns out that for a tool that you carry around on your back or shoulder, shaving a kilogram off its total weight is important.

But the Airbook is clearly an ageing design, and as with cars (where each successive refresh adds weight, feature creep, and size) it has arguably gone to seed. The 11" model remains laudably compact but doesn't have a brilliant backlight, and the letterbox-aspect screen is uncomfortably small for web browsing or word processing. The 13" model has a very good battery life (up to 14 hours of light tasks), but weighs more and has the same desktop footprint as the entry-model Macbook Pro. So it's no surprise that in 2015 Apple released a new flagship sub-notebook computer that received exactly the same criticisms as the 2008 Macbook Air for exactly the same reasons—which means it's a no-compromises attempt at redefining the ultra-portable laptop.

The 12" Macbook with Retina Display weighs as much as the original iPad, and is only about six centimeters wider, to accomodate the full-sized (but short travel) keyboard. I'm not going to recap all the design changes that went into making a 900 gram laptop; Ars Tehnica covered it well. The main weaknesses are a keyboard that some people will hate (I get along fine with it), a battery life that's a little lacklustre, and the same shortage of ports that made people kvetch about the original Macbook Air. In particular, having decided that the new USB-C connector was the way forward both for charging and for peripherals, Apple supplied it with a single port, thus ensuring that if you want to plug it into an external hard drive for backup you have to do so on battery power. (Solution: an external USB 3 SSD. It does the job well, albeit at a steep price.) On the other hand, the Macbook has a screen to die for after the 11" Macbook Air. I can actually write on it, on the road: the screen is taller rather than wider, which is just what the author ordered. And the choice of USB-C for charging means that if I'm going to be away from a power socket for a long time I can recharge it off the same Anker E7 2.7 Watt-hour USB battery that I also use for my phone or tablet on long trips. The E7 is a bit of a brick, and with the Macbook it weighs 1.3Kg—but for the same weight as the 13" Macbook Air I get a significantly longer run time (around 15-20 hours) and a much nicer screen.

I could be here all day describing how the Macbook works for me (in fact, I already wrote about it). It could be better (I'd love to see the USB-C socket augmented to carry Thunderbolt-3, and a second socket would be ideal) but right now it's my ultimate travel laptop. It's not the world's fastest machine, but it's a brilliant compromise between portability and functionality.

5. Qwerkeywriter Keyboard

I'd hoped to be able to talk about the Waytools TextBlade portable keyboard here, but although it was announced and available for preorder in January it still hasn't shipped as of December 30th. (It's stuck in device driver hell, although it looks as if it's slouching very close to release in January 2016: not so surprising given the totally revolutionary nature of it's subsystems—a constellation of widgets glued together by bluetooth LE and powerful magnets that resembles a plastic pack of chewing gum sticks that turn into a keyboard.) However, the Qwerkeywriter, announced in 2014, has shipped, and there's one in my wife's office right now. It's there because her old keyboard was dying and she took one look at it as soon as she saw it and kidnapped the thing. (As she was working on a book about 19th century steampunk inventions that actually existed, it provided added atmosphere to the project.)

You might think that a novelty bluetooth keyboard that weighs more than a laptop and resembles something from the 1890s would be basically cheap junk. You'd be wrong. The Qwerkeywriter uses high quality mechanical keyswitches, and the designers paid a lot of attention to layout—while it looks vintage, it's actually one of the best "clicky" keyboards I've tried out in years. While I mostly agree with Engadget's review criticisms (notably the tablet stand is inflexible and the keyoard badly needs a firmware update or configuration utility to rebind the keys) it feels gorgeous, much as a vintage IBM Model M keyboard does.

I can't swear that this thing is indispensible to my workflow or travel kit in the same way I can for all the other items here. It's strictly an office luxury. But if you work in an office every day you owe your fingers something better than a cheap piece of junk, and if you get a chance to grab a Qwerkeywriter for a price that seems affordable to you I think you should totally do so.

6. pi-top open source build-it-yourself laptop

You've probably heard of the Raspberry Pi, a British-designed educational computer that comes as a single board and which is designed to teach kids the basics of computing (both hardware and software) in the same mode as the BBC Model B and family machines of the 1980s. The pi has been a runaway success with millions sold, because it's both open and cheap—the top of the range Pi 2 model costs £25, and the entry-level Pi Zero sells for just £4.

What most folks don't notice at first is that the Pi family are startlingly powerful. The Pi 2 has 1Gb of RAM, a quad-core 900MHz Cortex A7 CPU, a GPU, ethernet, and a quad-port USB 2 hub. Storage is up to the user but it can take 128Gb on a micro-SDHC card; it can also work with wifi and bluetooth USB peripherals, and additional expansion or i/o is provided via the GPIO and HAT expansion bus. When you stack it all up, a Pi 2 running Linux runs the Byte UNIX benchmark suite between 7 and 40 times as fast as a SPARCStation 20 workstation from 1996—a scientific/engineering computer retailing for upwards of US $25,000 in today's money.

This is nothing to sneeze at, but the pi itself doesn't look much like a computer until you turn it into a Frankenstein's Rat's Nest of cables and casing. So item 6 on my 2015 list of amusements and gizmos is the penultimate Pi 2 case (the ultimate would be the Astro Pi space-qualified unit now flying on the ISS, or maybe a cubesat) is the pi-top; nothing less than a build-it-yourself-from-kit laptop featuring a Raspberry Pi B as its mainboard.

As laptops go, the pi-top is a bit eccentric. (Not many laptops come with an allen key, a baggie of components, and an assembly manual: at least not these days!) I should also caution that the included manual is as ambiguous as the assembly instructions for an IKEA flat-pack church organ and you should not tackle building the kit yourself unless you are steady of hand, clear of vision, and copacetic with anti-static precautions. (Disclaimer: mine is in a perpetual half-built state because I'm distinctly not steady enough of hand/clear enough of vision, and I share my office with an Asshole Cat who loves nothing better than knocking small and fiddly widgets on the carpet. I'll get to finishing it one of these days ...) On the other hand, for about £200 (don't forget to also buy a Pi 2 and any extra USB dongles you might need, e.g. bluetooth!) you have the privilege of building your own weird Linuxy laptop-shaped object. It weighs about as much as a 2003 laptop, is about as powerful as same, but has a decent enough battery life (10-12 hours claimed), a 1366 x 768 resolution display, and the basics. It'll run LibreOffice and Firefox (if you're careful not to overdo the tabs and plugins).

The pi-top allegedly much works out of the box with RISC OS Open as well as various Linux distributions (albeit the supplied wifi dongle isn't happy with RISC OS—you're limited to the ones supported—the screen needs tweaking to run in the correct resolution/aspect ratio, and there's no battery level monitor widget); but it means the world's most powerful Acorn Archimedes laptop comes in electric lime green. Cool!

7. Sandisk dual-USB drives

I mentioned the Macbook earlier. One problem with the Macbook is a lack of USB-C connected peripherals (and also a lack of third-party cables that follow the correct bits of the standard for high speed charging, although that's another matter. If you're in a wifi-free zone and want to get files off a Macbook and onto another Mac or PC, how do you do this? Well, Sandisk make a really handy double-headed USB memory stick: it has a regular A-type USB at one end, and a USB-C plug at the other. You can plug it into the Macbook using the C-type connector, shovel files on or off it, eject, then plug it into a different machine using the regulart connector.

On its own this would be less than sensational, but it's typical of a bunch of devices they're selling now. If you have an Android device you probably want their dual USB drive with a micro-USB on-the-go connector as well as a regular plug, because with the right file management app it's an extra 16-64Gb of storage on your phone or tablet that can be easily accessed from other devices. There's a similar device for iOS that provides a Lightning connector rather than micro-USB (using a free sync app from Sandisk to manage file transfer). And Sandisk have gotten into the game with a second-generation wireless-attached file store similar to the Seagate Wireless Plus hard drive or the AirStash—USB storage devices that provide a wireless network file server. I can't recommend the AirStash or the Seagate drive (in both cases the software is distinctly ropey and hard to get working; the AirStash is physically fragile, and the Wireless Plus resembles a brick). Per reviews, the Sandisk version seems to have done things better by trying to do less; the same design change that made the Livescribe+ work for me while the previous Livescribe was basically a dead loss. As for the key reason you might want to go with this option rather than a double-headed stick: if you want mobile backup of work in progress on a tablet/phone while you're unable to access the internet (e.g. sitting on a train or traveling in a country where data roaming is prohibitively expensive), this will do the job temporarily—it's your own personal portable storage cloud.

(NOTE: I'm sticking to Sandisk here because they're a well known high quality brand. The drawback of this is that they're a target for counterfeiters. You can probably find other, cheaper manufacturers making the same sort of products; I make no judgements on their quality but will note that some low-margin factories seem content to churn out any old crap they can sell without regard for electrical safety.)

8. Random other stuff

A round-up of seven other items I'm using, with a brief gloss on why:

a) iPhone 6+. No, I haven't upgraded to the 6S+ yet. My policy is to skip a generation with each iPhone release because I don't shit gold bricks. The 6+ was, for an Apple-world user with large hands, the best phone on the market until the 6S+ showed up. It rides in a Mophie Juicepack battery sleeve and goes everywhere with me.

b) Westone W40 earphones because while I don't shit gold bricks I like to be able to hear the music I'm listening to clearly. Worn with Comply T-100 isolation tips rather than the stock synthetic rubber ones. Admittedly these quad-driver audiophile earbuds cost roughly their weight in gold, but luckily I don't need to buy new earphones every year or two ...

c) iPad Mini 4. Yeah, I'm a Mac-world person. The iPad Mini 4 is the third generation of the iPad Mini with retina display, and the first change to the form factor since they introduced it—annoyingly, the old covers and cases don't quite fit. Less annoyingly, the display panel now has the same colour gamut as that of the iPad Air 2 (previous versions were muddy-looking and visibly less pleasant to use), and it has a dual-core variant on the same processor, making it way faster than previous models. It's my go-everywhere computer for use outside the home, on any trip where I want more than a phone.

d) Logitech Focus keyboard case. Protects the iPad Mini 4 and turns it into something about as functional for on-the-move typing/editing as an old Asus Eee 701 PC, the original netbook. Because on-screen keyboards simply don't cut it for long typing sessions.

e) Burgerplex Burgerdoodles sleeve for iPad Mini to keep the keyboard case from getting beaten up and just in case I forgot where I parked the damn thing. Silly? Sure. Why? Because I'm silly too.

f) Amazon Kindle Paperwhite. Mostly I read ebooks on the iPad Mini (or, at a pinch, on my phone), but if I get stuck on a very long trip without easy access to power, or trying to read in bright sunlight, there's no substitute for a dedicated e-reader with a reflective e-ink display and a battery life of something like 20-40 hours (without backlight). Did I mention that I read a lot?

g) Jawbone Mini-Jambox bluetooth speakers because I spend over a month a year living out of suitcases, often in hotel rooms, and I can't wear earphones all the time. Doesn't add a lot of weight to the suitcase; also doubles as a speakerphone.

So: we're done. And my question for you is, what single indispensible gizmo not on the above list did you discover in 2015, and why do you use it? (Explain, preferably at length.)



Smart pen - first seen in Thunderbirds:

Prior art!


The Qwerkeywriter link points to the TextBlade.


Hardware - A DVD/CD copier we bought for work. This is a brilliant device when you can have to make 2 to 10 copies of the same disc for clients! :-D

Also o/t but this is the top of a new thread at about the best time for me:-

A very happy and prosperous New Year to everyone that knows me through this site, particularly anyone I've also met in meatspace!


Like the charger, the keyboard & the USB-disk drive ...
I don't like anything "Apple" for reasons too boring to go into again.
One of these days, I suppose I'll work out what "bluetooth" is actually for.


I haven't used anything new lately, so this isn't what you want.

The Livescribe sounds interesting. I can't stand writing by hand either, but I'd like to get back into doing some drawing. I have a decent ipad drawing app (though autodesk replaced it and dropped support), my main problem with it is that I rest my hand on the surface, so something like the Livescribe would work around that. Though a cloth under the hand works too, and an ipad Pro would also give more room to work with (though I'm not likely to get one of those anytime soon).
I'm also a lefty, but, nothing personal, I've never understood that wrist-crooking way of writing.

I really like the look of the Qwerkywriter, but not exactly for travel, and the price...
And I don't care for the look of the TextBlade, looks awkward to me. But then I'm not likely to get one of those either.

I've been happy with my AirStash, which I got after you first mentioned them. Wasn't totally at first, but each app update has made it much more useful, and I can easily backup my work to it. I'll note that, AFAIK, the Sandisk wireless is licensed from AirStash, but with microSD cards and a prettier version of the app.


Righty, but I do understand I'm also a lefty, but, nothing personal, I've never understood that wrist-crooking way of writing.

It avoids dragging your hand over what you just wrote, which is important if you're working with inks (such as fountain pen for example, which Charlie may be old enough to have had to use at school {UK regional school boards vary}) that don't dry and set pretty much instantly.


I'm old enough that fountain pens were compulsory until I was about 14, but young enough that they didn't force me to try and use my right hand (and indeed left-handed nibs were a Thing).


Interesting list. 2015 might be the first year i bought no new gadgets. I had a time machine meltdown followed almost immediately by a hard drive meltdown. Unrelated but really crap timing.

By the time I'd replaced the time machine, the hard drive and paid for data recovery and the like, there wasn't much left over for new toys.

The biggest change to my tech year was the release of El Capitan. Unlike some people it went smoothly enough for me and I mostly like it but I do find myself resenting a number of the changes. No "Secure Empty Trash" for example. Yes, I can go into Terminal and empty it from there easily enough but it isn't as easy as doing it from the menu. No repair permissions any more because "you don't need it" - yeah, right.

The qwertykeywriter looks like fun though, if there's nothing serious on the shopping list for next year (there might have to be a new phone my current one is very long in the tooth and we're in the every other step for a new iPad Air) I might give that a go. Thanks Charlie.


Qwerkywriter. A pause and pesky autocorrect takes over!


By way of further illustration of the underlying point about fountain pen inks and school areas, I'm a couple of years older than Charlie, and unlike Yorkshire, Scotland (well at least the bits I have datum points from) had given up fountain pens for ball points before we got beyond pencil for everything.


It avoids dragging your hand over what you just wrote

Yeah, I get that, and I spent plenty of time in school with the sides of my hand grey from pencil, or blue from ball-point pen. Avoiding it like that looks awkward and painful. In the mid 70s when I was learning to write/read we were told to keep the wrist straight.


In my schooling, dip pens were compulsory in the early 1950s, and were being discouraged (in favour of fountain pens) by the late 1950s, and writing with the right hand was compulsory for rather longer. Despite being symmetric, left-hand writing with a dip pen is more than just tricky .... Biros etc. were not permitted, even in 1966, though left-handers could get dispensation to use pencils.


If you want to count using iOS 9 as something new.
It's been working okay om my iPad 2, but for some reason they have the onscreen keyboard settings apply to external keyboards also, so I ended up turning off Autocorrect and Auto-capitalization. That was really annoying, and cramping my writing style and speed--having to go back and fix what was 'corrected'.


A few months ago I replaced my iPhone 5s with a 6s (like Charlie, I tend to upgrade every second year), and noticed an unexpected side effect: suddenly I almost entirely stopped using my iPad. Apparently the increase in screen size from the 5s to (non-plus) 6s has crossed some psychological size threshold for me; frequent activities that I used to find awkward on the small phone screen, like web browsing or reading ebooks, are now perfectly comfortable, and now the iPad I used to pull out all the time for that sort of thing spends most of its time sitting unused in my bag. I'll probably end up giving it away; I no longer feel any need for anything between phone and laptop (13in MBA) in size.

I also recently bought Apple's new smart battery case for the phone, and I'll give it two thumbs up. It roughly doubles the phone's normal 8-10 hour battery life, doesn't require separate charging or manual switching like most other battery cases, and came in very useful on a recent long trip.


Charlie, what ereader software do you use on iOS? Just the Kindle software (so you can sync to/from the Paperwhite), or have you found something better that's worth losing that?


Yup, same here. Went from iPhone 4S + iPad mini to iPhone 6 full stop.

Part of that is the increased screen size making a lot more things bearable to do on the phone, another part of that was that the 6 was so very much faster than the (1st gen) mini that while the screen is still quite cramped for some tasks, my use of the iPad sort of stopped overnight and hasn't recovered.

This could obviously be fixed by getting a new faster iPad, but I don't actually see the need anymore.

Not much in the way of gadgets this year, between (involuntarily) switching jobs and recovering from a bike crash (paralysed arm for 3 months) I've had more fundamental things on my mind.

Now, the big dilemma for 2016 is going to be what to replace the increasingly creaky 11" Air with...

I tend to live in my laptop, it's my main computer, it gets dragged along everywhere AND spends much of its time plugged into the usual assortment of external power and screen and occasional (unicomp) keyboard / rodent / harddisk / wired network. This would seem to exclude the 12" from my options. I guess we'll have to see what Apple gets up to this year, what products get an update and how.


I'm madly in love with the new MacBook for all the same reasons you mention. Finally, we're starting to get a couple more useful accessories out for it.

I've been eyeing that Sandisk USB-C thumbdrive, but it's just so pricy for 32GB of storage. There is, however, a nice replacement. Monoprice carries a beautiful little microSDXC reader that holds the card inside the USB-A plug, and has a USB-C port on the other side.

Also, we're finally getting usable hubs with a USB-C power delivery passthrough. Aukey has a 4-port version available, whose only flaws are size and a blip on the bus when you disconnect it from wall power. Great little thing for desktop use, though. Anker has a slim 2-port with HDMI shipping next month, and is claiming to have 2-port-plus-Ethernet and 3-port versions 'soon'.


Last thing on left handedness; I should have said I didn't understand whether bending the wrist was natural or taught.

And I should have said the iOS 9.2 update wrt the keyboard.


The best device that I've discovered in 2015 is a small portable travel router. It's a Hootoo HT TM-04.

It looks exactly like a Mac charger, and I suppose one could use it like one. But it can do so much more.

In addition to being a dual-socket USB charger (2A.1/1A), it also has a 6000mAh battery inside, so both devices can be charged if you're away from a wall socket.

Besides being a charger and battery, it also has an embedded Linux system. That system allows you to share USB storage through the WiFi AP that it sets up. If you'd prefer to charge two devices while serving, it also has a MicroUSB port if you have a MicroUSB-equipped USB flash drive.

It also can simultaneously act as an AP and WiFi client, allowing you to share WiFi to other devices. This is really useful in a hotel room scenario in which their APs only allow you to connect one device at once. If you're in some really weird old business hotel that only provides ethernet, the TM04 has an Ethernet port that can plug into that, then sharing the connection over WiFi.

There are OpenWRT image son the internet, so it can be flashed with an open system, and afterwards can run any software you want (provided it's packaged for that system).

I travel ultralight (


The Pi family really are remarkable little devices.


There is no "Secure Empty Trash" because it doesn't actually work on SSDs at all. Empty trash and rm from the CLI are the same thing; srm doesn't really do anything with an SSD. And virtually all of Apple's products are SSDs (or Fusion drives).

"repair permissions" was used to fix something that is no longer possible. It also was error-prone, confusing the user, and didn't solve a whole mess of problems.


I. Do. Not. Do. Apple (other than the actual fruit). I strongly dislike would-be monopolies that significantly overprice.

Now, that out of the way, I *adore* that keyboard, though not enough to pay that much money for one. I will say it's an order of magnitude cheaper than the handcrafted steampunk wooden-cased keyboards I've seen... ok, a quick google shows a lot of steampunked keyboards for around this price.

I love it, and would love to get a clicky keyboard. Just one thing: I use my keyboard ergonomically (really - I had a class in ergonomics at a job, once...): on my lap. What I'd love is one with a cable, USB.... that was *coiled*, the way they used to be, and so didn't get tangled, or in your way.

Only new hardware for me: I started out by replacing my Kobo Touch (bought used, two years ago) with a Glo.

Then I spent almost an entire week getting an RMA and refund, as their call center people have apparently had drilled into them NOT to give refunds. It took me threatening lawyers and the BBB to get it. All because it took me a *week* to read about 30 pp, because their software is buggy. As in, crap. (Feel free to ask for proof: as a programmer and sysadmin, I can explain clearly why.)

Wound up with the least expensive Nook. Works fine. My wife's, that I bought her late last year, I had to install an mpt driver on my linux workstation (that's my computer), then mount it manually. This new one... I plugged in, and it automounted.

Oh, yeah, about earphones: why is it that the telephone was invented well over 125 years ago... and the speakers and mike give *exactly* the same fidelity, or worse, than it did 100 years ago? Tell me the voice quality on an annoyaphone is better than my princess-style wired landline in my study....

mark, curmudgeon, and proud of it


Note for El: Sean knows whereof he speaks, when he pronounces on Apple filesystem minutiae.


why is it that the telephone was invented well over 125 years ago... and the speakers and mike give *exactly* the same fidelity, or worse, than it did 100 years ago?

Because actually a fuckton of early UX research -- before it was called that, of course -- went into pinning down the frequency range of human speech, and then working out how far you could compress it before it became incomprehensible, in order to max out the bandwidth of the trunked telephone circuits. Turns out that 2400 baud bidirectional -- aka 2.4kHz -- is enough for speech, and it lets you cram 26 voice channels into a 64K line.

(You might also want to look into the employment history of one Norbert Weiner, and the history of the pre-digital PSTN. It's no accident that Alan Turing's #2 guy on the COLOSSUS and then the Manchester Mark 1, Tommy Flowers, was a Post Office telephone engineer ...)

These days we've got so much bandwidth coming out of our ears that there are new standards such as HD Voice or wideband audio specifically to permit higher quality voice calls. Because with phone handsets that can do 40mbps up/down to the cell station, why not make voice calls at 64kbps?


Hang on. Are you implying that unlinking always zeroes the locations, or that SSDs always copy on write? Because I don't see any other (simple) ways for it to be impossible to implement a 'secure' erase. Or have I misunderstood what you are saying?


That's the history, yes, but hearing isn't as simple as that. The early digital codecs caused hell to a lot of people, and it was neither frequency cut-off nor noise. They got back to analogue quality within about 5-10 years, though; I don't know the details of how. I found some academic papers at one stage, and apparently simply increasing the frequency response (even to 40+ Kbaud) isn't very effective at improving perceived quality, but I never tracked down a proper description of why.

I don't quite know why so many earpieces, loudspeakers etc. are so bad, except that they apparently they get a very small proportion of the budget. And, of course, making good small ones is tricky.


Very simplified version:

Flash memory is implemented in such a way that you can set individual bits, but only clear a faitly large chunk at a time.

This is because the clearing involves energetically forcing electrons through a colomb barrier into a flash cell, while setting is a comparitively low energy process of dropping the barrier to let them out again.

The resetting process is what contributes to wear of the drives and makes them break over time.

So in practice deletion and editing is implemented by copy on write, unlinking the old data and clearing it on demand when necessary.

I have no idea what the tradeoffs are with things like PCM and the new xpoint memory, but in the short term they will probably use repurposed flash controller logic.


You probably know this, but I just realised my previous comment doesn't make sense unless you know that a flash cell is essentially a field effect transistor with a small store of confined electrons providing the field.


I haven't bought this, but I'm very curious about the Vanhawks Valour bike. It's a bike that integrates with a smartphone and has directions built into the handlebars, along with blindspot sonar and various other nifty features.

The Kickstarter campaign for it appeared a year and a half ago, and at the time I figured it would never ship. But it has! Winter in the northern U.S. means this isn't a propitious time for a new bike, but it is appealing.

Here is one article from a while ago.

I can't remember if you're a cyclist or not, but you seem like you should be if you're not.


Is blindspot sonar harder or easier to use than turning your head?


Should have read the article. Easy to use, but last time I commuted regularly by bike I was in Sheffield so vibrating handlebars wouldn't even register :)


Gadget purchases in 2015

- Amazon Echo: lots of potential but currently lacking apps and functionality
- SmartThings Home Automation: great if you need to afministor a remote property don't quite see the point for your primary residence
- dropcam: very nice internet cameras, overpriced
- nano station m2: freaking amazing if you need to beam Internet a mile or under, boy that technology has com a long way


Thanks. All is clear. No, I hadn't needed to work at that level, never was much of an electronics person, hadn't kept track, and so didn't know that.


The LiveScribe can also run Infocom games. Some genius ported the Infocom software to the pen. It reads your written input as the command and shows the output on the pen's display.

Just got a 1Tb drive for the Raspberry Pi from WD. Not really a gadget as such but it was marked down from 70 quid to 50 and then an additional 15% off in the boxing day sales.

+1 for the pocket router/battery/file server. My favourite bit of kit for this year.

And this is the year I got a free computer on the cover of a magazine. I remember in the 80s the pundits said they would be free with the cornflakes. Close enough I guess.


Flash drives move content around all the time. Read too many times, it gets moved; go to over-write an existing block, it almost certainly gets moved. (No movement means that the life time of an SSD drops down to days. Literally.) This is called "wear leveling."

Secure Empty Trash was implemented using the guts of the srm command (turned into a library). This worked by overwriting the same block multiple times, either with 0s, or with random data. The problem with an SSD (and with Apple's "Fusion" drive, which incorporated an SSD) is that doing this ... did absolutely nothing to the original data, since it was remapped when it was written to.

(From a programming perspective, incidentally, it was the Fusion Drive that caused suggestions that the feature be completely removed: there was no easy way to tell whether a file was even partially on SSD, so even greying out the SET menu item during appropriate times was difficult.)

This limitation is not just for Macs or iDevices, so there are some attempts to deal with it. One is to have the TRIM command randomize the bits in a cell; another is to add a SATA command directing a particular block, and really we mean that block, to be erased. (That latter is mainly to be intended for destroying an encryption key. As it is, on the Mac, I believe you end up with your old keys laying around, even if you tell it to erase the key. I'm less sure about iDevices, since they have much, much tighter integration with the flash than any of the Macs do.)

For further fun, there are some spinning-drive technologies that have similar issues. (The so-called shingle drives, for example. And the hard drive industry has a long-standing working group on dealing with super-dense hard drives, where reading one block will start to warp the ones around it, resulting in having to do some very complicated block management.)


That's the older Livescribe -- the Plus doesn't have a display at all (it focusses on being a pen, not an app platform).


My only gripe with the iX500 scanner is with the "These are the only settings you can use" scanner menu. I use one a great deal for converting old manuals into (eventually) PDF files, and there are times when 300dpi is too coarse and 600dpi is overkill.

I have been known to guillotine the spine off (common) books in order to scan them, on the principle that an 8GBP copy of Signal Training Vol.2 Electricity & Magnetism + a guillotine = 30 minutes or so of scanning, as opposed to several days and serious backache using a flatbed. (Also, the automatic "showthrough" suppression feature is a godsend.)

I haven't bought any new tech apart from that, recently, though that will almost certainly change next year.


and would love to get a clicky keyboard

Do you know about Unicomp? IBM's old keyboard division.

The cords aren't coiled as the traditional Model M but that might be a customization. (And the cord you do get is reasonably disinclined to tangle.)


Das Keyboard are also worth a look.


For Mac users, Canadian company Matias make the Tactile Pro keyboard -- uses Cherry buckling-spring keyswitches, so feels somewhere between the IBM Model M and the old-school Apple keyboards. Newer models include a USB 2 hub with a couple of ports.


For both of us here, The Thing was the iPad Pro -- and its accessories.

For me, the Smart Keyboard Cover is great. Makes it the size of a small laptop, but i can fold the keyboard away, or just not bring it. And the keyboard is good enough that I got an ssh app for it, and have been quite happy logging into my servers from restaurants.

For Gale, the Apple Pencil is the most completely awesome thing ever. She is, right now, drawing and painting using it.


what single indispensible gizmo not on the above list did you discover in 2015, and why do you use it?

Pebble smartwatch

Originally I dismissed the idea of smartwatches, but the original pebble got cheap enough to buy to check out if I were correct. And I admit I was wrong.

The primary use case is to ignore people. Emails, texts, phone calls, etc all generate notifications that appear on the watch, allowing you to ignore 90% of them and not always be checking the phone. The 1 week battery life means you don't need to think about power, and the built in fitness/sleep tracker is useful for realising how lazy you are.

As I see it, phones have stopped moving forward, and wearables is where its now at. You get more added functionality out of a cheap smartwatch than you do out of the latest $1000 flagship smartphone.


I had the TactilePro for my Macs, but switched since to the CODE keyboard. It doesn't have the nice option and shift-option glyphs silk-screened on the keys, but it has backlighting, and while the key response is suitably tactile, it is not as obnoxiously noisy.

I switched laptops the the 12" MacBook, as did my wife. Decent USB-C peripherals are sparse, but it's only a secondary computer for myself and I paid the extortionate price for Apple's HDMI passthrough USB-A converter dongle for my wife. No iPad Pro yet (B&H should ship it soon).

Some of my 2015 gadgets of choice:

One inexpensive gadget I simply can't live without is the Kanex Foldable Stand for Mobile Devices ($13 for a pair at B&H Photo). It's a very lightweight but surprisingly stable easel to hold a phone or tablet. Much lighter at 28 grams (1 ounce for medievalists) than the heavy aluminum contraptions I used before.

The Olight S1 Baton - a tiny flashlight powered by lithium CR123A batteries (or rechargeable RCR123A) that outputs an astounding 500 lumens (about as much as a 40W incandescent light bulb), with several very useful low-power modes as well. Get the titanium versions if you like bling.

Shuttle DS57U. A fanless PC with dual Gigabit Ethernet NICs and a fairly powerful Haswell processor (dual-core 1.5GHz, but it's also available in i7). Designed for digital signage but also suitable for use as a firewall using OpenBSD or similar. I am planning on using it to monitor outbound traffic from all my connected devices, to see who is spying on me, and putting an end to it. In 2016, fireballing outbound traffic is just as important as inbound.

TM1000A GPS NTP server. I got finally tired of unreliable NTP service over the Internet and sprung the $300 for a stratum-1 class time source for my home network. Works great as long as you put a server in front of it to act as a stratum-2 time source for the rest of the network. My Mac Pro has a wonky clock that will lose a minute a week without NTP, and I had to replace the Mac's xntpd with OpenNTPd as the former can't cope with a clock that shoddy.

Allex SH-1 super-hard scissors from Japan: cut through clamshell packaging like a hot knife through butter.

Parrot Bebop Drone: the electronics in this inexpensive camera drone reap the peace dividend from the smartphone wars: all the panning and image stabilization is virtual, done in software from a fixed fisheye lens (no gimbal) using the GPU. Runs Android, and they are promising a SDK.


They are. I'm one of those weird people who Really Likes trackpoints (and Really Hates mice) so I stick to Unicomp as the source of good keyboards with decent trackpoints.


Not 2015 by a month or so, but:

My eyes are also aging, and I occasionally do some hobby electronics. I've found a table-top tripod for my smartphone and a bluetooth camera shutter control indispensable for reading the writing on ICs and surface-mount components.

(Hand-held photography is just not steady enough in indoor lighting for this, even with OIS. Actually, the tripod showed me that the camera in my phone is much better than I thought it was, even in daylight photography.)

I've pretty much only bought replacements this year, the latest being a Logitech G302 mouse to replace one that started double-clicking on me after only five years. The G302 is rated for 20 million clicks....we'll see. Exciting stuff, eh?

My wife has recently discovered LiquidText, which is great for those who have to read and annotate a lot of medium-length PDFs (academic papers, board papers, etc.).

Charlie, you might have covered this in earlier posts, but have you considered a smartphone scanning app such as CamScanner? They're useful for low-volume scanning such as receipts and for recording whiteboard and paper brainstorming sessions while out and about.


Yes, I have a smartphone scanner on my iphone; it's good for the odd one or two pages. The ScanSnap is the go-to device for when you want to scan an entire year's worth of paper bank statements in one run ...


Read too many times, it gets moved

Do you have an Order of Magnitude value for 'too many' here? I'm mildly curious, due to a never-to-be-implemented thought experiment from when I was still working, which would have used Flash for WORM (more precisely, WRRM) purposes.


multipurpose short(ish) drunk post

Gadgets: recently forced to re-equip, here's a brand-heavy list of toys new (to me)

Vox Tonelab Mini - small but tough portable amp, mostly guitar. Good emulation of popular amp types. Good at AC30 emulation, when used as mp3 amp, has replaced hifi. Lovely.

Zoom G3X guitar effects unit - good emulation of most popular guitar FX units - good enough to replace an Echoplex, Proco Rat and all the other battery hog prima donnas I used to lug about. Nice enough for me.

I'm a bit hamfisted and cloth-eared but bloody nice equipment. Works for me.

offtopic: proposed name for regulars who help the drift towards the strange attractors :

The Invariant Set.

happy new. Here's a year - don't break it.


Check out the Zagg Slim Book for the iPad Mini 4 - a better compact keyboard layout than the Logitech, and it converts your iPad Mini 4 into a true netbook-like form-factor with a laptop hinge, instead of the awkward triangular thing on the Logitech. And the magnetic clamp makes it easy to remove the iPad for tablet-style use:

And if you're convinced, as I am, that Scrivener is dead, take a look at Ulysses, which works well and syncs between the Mac and iPad (and, soon, iPhone):


Why should I be convinced that Scrivener is dead?

Presuming the scrivener isn't named Bartleby, anyway?


Offtopic, but I always miss out on Ask Charlie things. Hoping for some seasonal lee-way

Charlie - I'm in a wide & comfortable rut in the music I listen to. If it's not much trouble could you (and the esteemed regulars) please mention one or two or more musical artists/groups that mean something and aren't well- known?

My unsolicited 2 (just a fan, no association) - Hyper Kinako - frenetic 8 bit nutters - the only Norwich-based now defunct Japanese art college dance band favoured by John Peel that I know of - and Meanwhile Back In Communist Russia, who are sn ex-band: posh Southern girl reads despairing poetry over a genius Telecasterist doing Mogwai-like washes of sound. Annoys the shit out of my mates.

Most of my new gadgets were things for making and hearing music. Quite like to have more music to listen to and play along with.


A freaking smartphone, just a basic little dinky galaxy core prime (after all my trying to get them to cut loose from their crappy old feature phone plan and let me set them up with a full smartphone setup for the same amount they pay... they go and surprise me by signing up for one of the verizon edge "pay monthly for 2 years but it seems smarter when a salesman is pushing it on you" plans) but I don't call anyone anyways or I'd get a phone myself, so that's beside the point.

No, what I really enjoyed this year was being able to carry around a little HD+ resolution camera when we walk the dog.

...yes, I would have gotten better phones, probably something like the Nexus or LG L9 line-up, and they have better camera/screen/etc, but the last pocket-shooter I played with was a dinky little Nikon 35mm.

To this date I still have not made a single call on the phone, but I've got 1.7 Gb of pictures I shoomped over to my computer to clear up space/GIMP at/share online/general storage, including some of my favorites, things which I never would have been able to capture with the old shoot/drop off/buy more film/etc cameras like documenting a cicada molting and drying out or my all time favorite... fair warning if you're scared of spiders, Skarlett and Elvira were big beautiful Argiopes Aurantia, porch spiders. Also known as the black and yellow orb weaver, writing spider, or that-huge-grisly-bastard-by-the-front-door, very large and dramatic... if you are scared of spiders and start to hyperventilate at the mention, please do not click, and I'm sorry for bringing it up.

Ok? They were wonderful ambassadors though. Skarlett set up between columns where traffic wasn't obstructed, she gobbled all the jerkass bugs going for the porch light, and just hung out being huge and dramatic and really shy. Had strangers ask to take pictures of her even!

I love the smartphone because I was able to snap a shot of her each night as we walked the dog, got to catch her getting all fat with babies, hanging the egg sacs up, and got actual sympathy from people online when I had to break the news that she got killed in a storm.

Some time later we found Elvira roaming around trying to climb the metal siding to no avail, so as I had been talking about what ridiculously docile little old granny-spiders these gals are, I did the obvious thing: I scooped her up and took some pictures with the aid of the Missus, who still has issues with palmetto bugs, but not spiders!

So here's to ridiculously powerful/flexible/cheap pocket computers with with surprisingly capable cameras, and a happy new year to all of you!


I got a Roost stand for my Macbook that's turned out to be pretty useful ( Keeps the desk a little more clear, elevates my laptop to eye-height, and leaves room for a bluetooth keyboard (since I managed to decimate the keyboard on the Macbook itself).

I also got one of these bluetooth keyboards to use with my iPad ( Yeah, it's Microsoft, but it got rave reviews everywhere, and it turned out to be just as good as those reviews claimed it was.



I'm wondering if you have explored the idea of replacing your Livescribe setup with the new iPad Pro/Pencil combination. I've heard that the digitizer in the IPad Pro might be fast enough to let it track most people's handwriting. Granted, it wouldn't leave a written record, but it would get your sketches straight into electronic format. I guess it would be primary a question of what app to use at this point.


I find a binocular inspection microscope is better for doing stuff that needs magnification and there are good cheap ones available from the Usual Suppliers these days. They also have a long reach optically from the objectives to the workpiece to permit soldering, grinding, drilling etc. which is trickier to do using a smartphone.


I wanted the Zagg slim book but it's not available in the UK yet. The Logi keyboard was available now and fixed the issues with earlier ipad mini keyboard covers by logitech (the tendency for them to turn on the ipad by accident). (Just checked: the Zagg's available on the 5th. So, ordered.)

Scrivener is very much not dead indeed, but the iOS port is coming along agonizingly slowly, for reasons Keith has explained at length in the Lit&Lat fora. The TLDR version is that Scrivener for OSX is a monster compared to your average iOS app, none of the iOS developers he'd contracted had ever worked on anything within an order of magnitude of it in complexity, and there were a couple of false starts at the porting attempt.

(I gather Scriv 3.0 for Mac is in early development, or at least in the working-on-a-set-of-specifications stage. And Lit&Lat, which started as a single hobbyist, is now a 5-6 person company. So very much not "dead".)


I have no idea what your taste in music is like so I'm not sure what to recommend ... but having said that, have you discovered the popular beat combo Public Service Broadcasting yet? In particular their concept album "The Race for Space" which came out a few months ago features a sound collage from late 50s/1960s NASA (and Russian) broadcasts ...


What I want from the Livescribe is a totally app-free experience; just draw or scribble on paper and capture it to PDF.

I've got a Pencil (the model by 53, not Apple) and found it, and the apps that use it, have an intimidating learning curve -- I haven't really used graphics editing tools on a computer since GEM Draw in the late 80s, so didn't keep up with all this stuff about layers and channels and what-not.

I will probably get an iPad Pro in April. New financial year, but more importantly, I have a use case for it: I'm expecting at least four sets of page proofs to come my way in PDF in the 12-18 months starting late this March, and production people generally prefer to receive markup in the form of an annotated/red-lined PDF rather than page/line/comment typescript. So my use for an iPad Pro will be to slurp up huge PDFs, read through them, and mark them up on screen.

I have an iPad Air, but the screen is just a bit too small for comfortably displaying the full page images with crop marks and other stuff that I get sent. While the iPad Pro can display a US Letter or A4 page at 100% scaling with near-laser-print resolution in dpi, which is exactly what you want for proofreading.

(If Feorag ends up not using the iPad Pro I bought her for Christmas I'll borrow it rather than buy my own, but as she's a graphics person that's quite unlikely.)

I won't be getting/using an iPad Pro as a travel laptop replacement because it's bigger and heavier than my current Macbook and doesn't run the desktop applications I need (notably full-fat Scrivener and LibreOffice). Indeed, with a (very nice) Logitech keyboard case on top, the iPad Pro weighs more than the Macbook and an iPad Mini. So my uses for it are actually really limited.


"Secure Empty Trash ... overwriting the same block multiple times, either with 0s, or with random data."

Yes, the old magnetic medium trick: supposedly 3 times was adequate and 5 was safe against GCHQ, but I suspect those were picked out of thin air. At that level, it hasn't really got any simpler since we needed to control the exact positioning, timings and sizes of accesses, for information density, performance and to avoid disk resonance, snapped tapes and all those problems, has it? :-)

"[Encryption keys] As it is, on the Mac, I believe you end up with your old keys laying around, even if you tell it to erase the key. I'm less sure about iDevices, ..."

Almost certainly, at least temporarily and under some circumstances. Modern systems are so complicated, and have so much caching (designed and incidental) that I don't believe any claim that all copies of data have been destroyed. iDevices may well be better but, if we want a secure system, the only option is to design one from scratch. I sadly regret that the building of capability systems seem to be one with the making of Damascene steel.


As Charlie says, we don't know your tastes. I mostly find new (to me) acts through BBC 6 and local bars.


On the subject of where sensitive data might be cached in a modern laptop, this discussion of precisely how GCHQ destroyed those Guardian laptops is illuminating.


"Printrbot Simple" 3D printer. Get the one with the heated bed. Scrub the bed/film with a cellulose sponge and acetone before printing. Print with PLA filament at 205°C nozzle, 70°C bed, 45mm/s bottom layer. (Same on any similar gadget. I don't know why they don't tell all this up front. Maybe they think discovery is broadening?)

(Really there is no reason to avoid Linux on laptops anymore. Everything just works, nowadays. But avoid Ubuntu; base Debian lapped it years ago.)

I long wondered why a techie would ever buy from Apple. I have decided it must be because when it won't do what you want, which is often, you know there is simply no way, no matter how much time you put in, to ever fix it. You resign yourself, and move on. With Linux, you think you could probably fix it, given enough time, and then feel obliged to do it. That potential time sink, and the attendant impulse, are plugged by Apple pre-emptively. You adapt yourself, instead, and find some other way, or tell yourself you didn't need or want it after all. All of this can be more or less rational behavior if you remain conscious of it; when you forget, it becomes Stockholm Syndrome. Then, you have the company of millions of co-hostages to help reinforce your habit.


About new music: you could do far worse than to consult the last few days'


Picked up a tablet early in the year because, Heh! It was at a give-away price and most everyone said it's convenient for wasting time during commercial breaks. Used it a handful of times and it's now in my useless/little used tech gadget drawer.

Most of the new tech coming into the house in 2015 was health/medical. (Parent suffered a series of strokes, etc.) While it's heartening that there is so much medical technology that can be brought into the home, it's pricey, needs specialized installation, sucks power like mad, etc. But - like other tech gadgets - you quickly learn that you actually need only about 10% - 50% of the built-in capabilities, that it's built to be very, very difficult to shut off* (to avoid accidental shut-off, probably), that every gadget has a built-in alarm and back-up battery in case of electrical power failures, that the companies selling/installing these technologies have the life span of a mayfly, etc. But, this tech works!

On the positive side, I keep telling myself that have a front seat to the tech that's going to matter most for babyboomers and their kin.

* We had at least one major power failure late winter/early spring - impossible to ignore the noise/to sleep through the din and impossible to turn off without taking things apart.

Charlie - I can personally recommend the electric/powered stair lifts if you ever need one. Even at 64 stairs, much cheaper and less space required than installing an elevator. (I priced that option too.)


Best wishes to all for the New Year!


Charlie - I can personally recommend the electric/powered stair lifts if you ever need one. Even at 64 stairs, much cheaper and less space required than installing an elevator. (I priced that option too.)
That's not going to work for reasons:-
1) Charlie's flat, well every flat in the New Town, was built on a "common close" system where 6 to 10 properties share the street access and stairwell.
2) It's in a Grade 2 (IIRC) listed building and almost certainly wouldn't get the requisite "listed building planning consent".
3) The Edinburgh New Town is a World Heritage site and again that would effectively block the required property modifications.


Grade 1 listed building, not grade 2. Highly problematic!

Also the stairwell wall curves. Even if it was legal to do so, fitting a stairlift to it would be prohibitively expensive.


That's "if you want to change anything from how it was when it was listed (even paint colours in some cases) forget it", yes?


SanDisk Extreme PRO CZ88 128GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive

What I use it for is as an alternative hard drive for my laptop. I have the boot sequence set to try USB first. So when I have the flash drive in, it boots into my alternative universe (Ubuntu) and when leave it out it boots into Windows 10 on the internal SSD (which is a Crucial 128 GB job).

So now I have effectively two (or more if I buy more sticks) in one. I can do development in Ubuntu and be MSFTish in Windows 10. (I think the days of using Windows at all are numbered, but that is a different topic.) Development has gone from 10 years ago doing it on the native OS , to using virtual machines (very performance heavy), to just having multiple SSDs for each OS. Simple and perfectly state preserving.

128 GB is plenty for me. My laptop has multiple USB ports so backup options are a plenty. I do all my personal computing in the cloud using a Google Apps for Business account (around $50/year) and use Amazon Web Services to host instances that I want to make Internet visible (pretty good security, you know?)

I use this with a little 3" USB extension cord (from Monoprice as usual) to physically protect the USB port on the computer a little.

Installing Ubuntu: Put the distribution on any flash drive (8GB is fine). Boot up on it. Put the Sandisk in another USB port. Now the installer on the first USB gives you a choice between the laptop hard drive (NO!) and the USB stick. Easy-peasy. Downloading and getting the Ubuntu distribution on a USB flash drive is found via a Google search.

I have tried other flash drives but, wow!, this SanDisk Extreme, even in a USB 2.0 port, smokes. And it won't fatigue after a lot of writes (although with Linux add noatime to the mount options in /etc/fstab and don't have a swap partition)


This year, my beloved gave me a nice iPad Air 2 to replace my iPad 2. Big cheesy grin :)

However, the technology of choice is a new central heating boiler, as the existing (15-year-old) boiler died noisily on New Year's Eve. Reversionary mode includes the electrical immersion heater in the hot water tank, blankets, warm clothes, a pair of electrical fan heaters from our first flats, the gas fire in the living room, and a hefty garage-scale space heater that we got when I was having to do my winter training at home (not designed for domestic use, but yes, we have CO monitors).

Only until the plumbers' supply stores reopen, the price of calling out a gas fitter drops from unbelievable to merely astronomical, and we can buy a new boiler...


Charlie, you threaten my wallet.

My book-buying policy over the last year or so has been to buy what you said was enjoyable or the works of your guest authors. It works well, I've read some very good books over the last year.

But then you had to go and mention the pi-top. I want one, I can just about afford it, but I should probably be spending my money on food.


Our current senior cat, when he was younger and more energetic, acquired the epithet "Captain Gravity" from his love of reaching up to hook things off surfaces. He destroyed several mugs before he had us trained to keep constant watch on them. The household joke was that he was experimentally verifying the continued operation of gravity. . . .


I have to endorse the Anker charger - I've had mine for a ear or so and it is bloody brilliant. I couple it with a pair of braided bolse 6ft Lightning cables and that does my iPad and phone and then the rest are available for whoever else I'm sharing a room with.

The 6ft cables are fantastic too because then you can be on charge and still move around some. Much better quality than the Apple ones too, and they coil well.


Cheers! I enjoyed "Spitfire" but had forgotten they exist. That's me happy.


My gadget du jour is a Roku streaming stick. Having just moved to a house without an aerial or a dish, with limited time to install my entire FreeSat set up, and being a firm believer in free TV, I opted to take broadband from Virgin (no BT line) but not TV. Seeing the stick available for about 30 quid with 3 months free Now TV (Sky TV ‘normal’ channels rebranded) made it a bit of a no brainer. 6 months later the stick has been transferred to the kids room to make room for a Roku 2 (£40) for the main telly and my whole digital entertainment has become Roku-centric and the FreeSat kit still isn’t installed.

Whilst other streaming sticks/boxes are available the Roku seems to have hit the sweet spot in terms of Wife and Child acceptance factor plus techie versatility. The kids aged 4 and 6 can use it (a mixed blessing) and I get to noodle with the interesting Apps. I now have Plex media server installed on my Mac Mini and watching DVD rips in 5.1 through the Roku Plex App, the Roku can do DLNA as well. The Amazon Prime Video app covers the rest of my streaming needs although suffers from a lack of good content to compared the likes of Netflix - which the Roku has too but I am too cheap to subscribe to when I get the Amazon one as a fringe benefit of my Prime subscription. Managed to cancel the Now TV subscription when GoT finished and considering dipping back in when S6 starts on Sky again.

We are a mixed Apple/Android household and the Roku plays nicely with both factions and includes the ability to cast tablets and phones to the screen. The Roku 2 has IR as well as a Wi-Fi Remote control as well as wired Ethernet, which means it’s easier to integrate with my Harmony remote.

The Roku’s have apps galore with almost an Apple-like polish including all 5 UK TV catchup App’s, plus afaik they are the only one with Murdoch TV - the Now-TV boxes are repurposed Roku’s. Worst downside of them is that Mr M owns a good chunk of Roku afaik – otherwise highly recommended.

Other than that upgraded all my Homeplugs to solwise/aztech 500av models as the house has thick stone walls that limits my Wi-Fi to the central rooms. I know powerline networking is rightly hated by radio hams due to the fact it turns the entire house into a EM transmitter that tramples all over their spectrum, but its truly too much of a godsend not to use.


My only techy investments this year were a new phone and a stereo. The phone market seems to be in an odd place right now: most models are way more than is needed for a phone, but not quite at desktop replacement. I went for a low-end Nokia that has decent battery, free offline GPS, and a modest size; it's very functional, and it won't be a tragedy if/when it gets busted. Though: windows mobile is pretty crap. I'll buy a phone that costs the same as a laptop when I can connect it to a screen, ext HD, and keyboard and use it as a full computer. The specs are high enough for that already, of course, but connectivity is a bitch and above all there's the software problem.

Stereo: low-end Denon amp powering second-hand Mordaunt Short speakers in the living room and Wharfedale 9.1s in the kitchen. Combined with my laptop and a fairly basic Behringer external sound card (my lappie having a low-end Nvidia integrated sound chip, which really does let the side down). I guess an audiophile wouldn't be thrilled, but it's a lot of bang for the buck - certainly compared to anything you might ick up at a comparable price in Curry's. One lesson is that people who love audio (a) tend to look after their gear, and (b) get upgradeitis. Since the good stuff tends to be well-made, that means buying off ebay is surprisingly reliable... I got the Mordaunt Shorts at a silly low price, but the guy who sold them to me was still happy to drive a good 25 miles to drop them off in person rather than entrust his much-loved babies to a courier!


Remember Sturgeon's Law
95% of everything is crap.
This is often why waiting is a good idea.

With the possible exception of certain "lads" from Liverpool, circa 1963/4 I will normally only listen to music that's pre-1950 at least ( there are exceptions, obviously)


Ah yes...
the magic Birman floating leap to surprise! on top of the Hand of Pork waiting to go into the oven, yersssss .....
Or ... Goose-bits! Must be for ME!
Or, saucepan-lids, well I know about THEM .....
Or - you get the idea


That's very similar to the thought experiment I was referring to in my earlier comment #48. I had my idea back when the standard Flash Drive held 8 Meg, triggered by a memory of my very first PC back in the 8-bit days which had a single slot for a ROM-based cartridge. Basic came with the box, and a couple of others could be bought.


A curved stairway is/was not a problem ... your zoning though sounds out of step with social needs.

Seriously, what hoops did people have to jump through when they updated your building for 20th century indoor plumbing and electricity? The 21st century (in NA at least) is all about safe access/egress - especially for medical/health reasons. In Canada, there's even a tax credit for assisted-living devices/products. Okay - there's something like a $10K limit per year. Plus, if you're applying for the tax credit you need a doctor to fill out a form outlining type of disability, etc. There's a push in some countries to help those with physical limitations (mostly seniors) live independently in their own homes and not clog up the health care system. Bottom line: The tax credit is much less costly for the gov't than subsidizing long term care/residence. And, for the consumer, the cost/installation of a stairlift could work out to be both less expensive and definitely less disruptive than moving. (Very few bungalows left in any major NA city, and what's available is very pricey or a tear-down/fixer-upper.)

Was surprised to see that sheltered living (old folks home) is so popular in Scotland and am wondering if this is because the alternative is to join the segment living with 'the damp' or risk becoming fuel-poor.

Your building co-op board and local authorities might be the only hurdles. General guidelines re: Building Warrant Issues seem pretty clear that a stairlift is okay to put in and no building permit/permission is required. At the same time though, almost every page also says to check with the local authorities. FYI - the doc below specially says that a stairlift does not require a building warrant (pg 11].

21. Is there any type of building work that does not require a warrant?

Yes. The following building work does not require a warrant, provided the work complies with the building regulations (the full list is in schedule 3 in section 0 of the Technical Handbook):


h) Other minor work such as the provision of a single sanitary facility (other than a WC), installation of an extractor fan or, in a dwelling, the installation of a stairlift.


This thread is thoroughly depressing. Perhaps the worst bit is that not just one, but several, responders, having originally been persuaded to spend money on a crippled-by-design gadget on the basis that having important functionality completely missing is somehow an advantage, and deluding themselves into thinking it is actually great because that's easier than accepting that they've wasted money, have then been persuaded to extend that delusion to the point of spending more money on a second gadget to restore the functionality that the design of the first gadget deliberately left out, and thinking that's great as well. And I've spotted at least one post from someone who spent money on a third gadget because the second gadget didn't restore the missing functionality very well, and still thinks all three gadgets are great.

No wonder the planet is being wrecked.

Advertising, psychological manipulation, brainwashing, whatever you like to call it (personally I use the phrase "fucking people's heads up")... if only people would learn to recognise and reject it, rather than submitting to it. This ought to be taught in schools: how to be aware that some bugger (and there are a million different varieties) is not your friend, but is messing with your likes and desires to enable them to suck on your resources for their benefit - and have you actually like it, so you think you're doing it of your own accord for your own benefit.

Now where was the parasitism thread again?


If you sometimes keep a cell phone or tablet on your lap for extended periods (such as while in a vehicle), then the "myclip kneeboard" is practical:

Simple, straightforward, and forgiving of different device sizes and orientations. Small enough to stuff in a pocket. I keep one in my glove compartment.


A couple of months ago, I got a 240g Thunderbolt SSD. It's pretty nice (I put my virtual machine library on it), but... wow it gets hot.

As in, I'm afraid it'll burn things.


After much faffing I finally bought a new laptop. I bought the lowest spec 1080p one I could find because it's purely for web browsing and listening to music. The display proved to be a challenge as the current standard is 1300x768 rather than 1900x1080. So I ended up getting a machine with a 2.5" drive bay and also a removable CD/DVD drive, allowing me to drop in a second drive. I miss my old IBM laptop with the 17" 1600x1200 screen.

My solstice bonus was blown on a 1TB SSD and a $10 DVD/HDD adapter. That lets me have my full FLAC collection on the laptop and listen via an external DAC. My phone will also drive the DAC (FiiO E7, battery powered) via a host USB cable, but with only 160GB of storage (128GB uSD card) on the phone it's not a lot of fun.

I have become a huge fan of decent headphones and an external DAC, even as I get older and my hearing falls apart. To the point where I take the whole pile of stuff cycle touring with me. Phone full of Q8 ogg because the DAC in the phone isn't capable of revealing any more, but the laptop etc for when I'm out in the wilderness where it's nice and quiet and I can lie under the stars listening to nice music. Charging that off a 20W portable solar panel works surprisingly well.


Also, 512GB SSD is the primary drive in the laptop, and putting Linux Mint onto it proved surprisingly straightforward. Very much "burn ISO to USB drive, boot off it, install, the end". I spent more time trying to evade the BBC's restrictions on overseas viewers than on installing the OS (that I failed on {sadface}).

Trying to get Fedora or Centos onto my desktop OTOH, I have completely failed at. Video drivers are available for my card but three monitors make the whole thing lock up. Windows 8 just demands that the highest pixel density one be the primary or things get ugly.


2015 was the year I discovered the Smartphone (in my case, the Samsung Galaxy Trend) and discovered hey, these things are actually fairly useful. Up to a point, anyway. In my case, simply because I don't have the monetary resources to be paying a regular fee for the joys of being told I've exceeded my data allowance on a regular basis, it largely just acts as a phone (I'll use the data functions when I'm somewhere with wi-fi available, such as being at home... but then, if that's the case I have a perfectly good laptop computer to be working on instead, with much more readable screen real estate, and an easy-to-use keyboard).

However, the more useful gadget I purchased in the past 12 months is my little Samsung tablet (Galaxy Tab, one of the ones which is better suited to portrait orientation than landscape. I think it's about an 8" screen). In this, I discovered the long-awaited replacement for my old Palm m515, which had (until the battery life deteriorated beyond the point of usefulness) been my constant companion and prosthetic memory. The tablet actually works much better for this than the smartphone does, since I bought the phone to be the right size to fit in my hands (I have small-ish hands, being 5'2" and female) rather than for readability and usability - the phone still mostly gets used as a phone. The tablet, meanwhile, is just the right size that I can make sense of the default text size without needing to put my glasses on (and this is going to remain a boon until the day I wind up with bifocals) and has a large enough on-screen keyboard that my fat fingers don't muddle things up. Plus it has a calendar, address book, and notepad apps all loaded on there for free.

Here's the kicker: I originally purchased the silly thing as a replacement for my dedicated ebook reader, which was about two or three years old and starting to get a bit tetchy about things (the "back" button doesn't function unless you press it just right). Here in Australia, if you want a dedicated ebook reading device which isn't a Kindle (no objection to the electronics of the Kindles, but I have a strong objection to policies of the corporation tied to them) you are on a hiding to nothing.

These days I get the most regular use out of it taking it with me when I'm doing the grocery shopping - it holds the shopping list, and I have the calculator running to ensure I don't go over budget, and it knocks the number of things I have to juggle on the front of the shopping trolley down from three (notebook with shopping list, pen, calculator) down to one.


It might amuse you to know that, among top-level IT experts, the distrust of everything computerised and the dislike of gimmickry are strongly correlated with IT experience and expertise.


Electricity pre-dates Listed Building status. Also Listed Building status is managed centrally rather than by a local authority.

I don't know about arrangements for buildings factors etc; they can vary by the building rather than just the local authority.

I also mentioned World Heritage Site status; this is applied for at a national level (I think) but managed by the United Nations.

In short, you're trying to apply Canadian nomenclature and solutions to a foreign jurisdiction, and possibly to international law. Which is why your ideas are well-meant but won't work.


It doesn't qualify exactly as a 2015 purchase since I bought it in December 2014 but the Big Bit Of Tech I'm sitting in front of is the best 800 quid I've spent in a long while.

Dell UP3214Q Ultrasharp 4k monitor, 31.5 diagonal inches of IGZO goodness. I have no peripheral vision left.

If your eyes are getting on in years then a decent computer display (IPS or IZGO) will be a revelation. 4k (3840 x 2160) is even more of an upgrade to ageing eyesight over crappy low-res HD. The weird thing is that after a day or two 4k becomes the new normal and it's only a shock when you try to use lower-resolution lower-quality displays on Other People's computers.

There's a new model out, the UP3216Q which supports HDMI 2.0 for 60Hz display but I've got my older monitor connected via DisplayPort which does the same job.


A curved stairway is/was not a problem ... your zoning though sounds out of step with social needs.

I live in a UNESCO World Heritage Site, i.e. a living museum. You can go to jail for messing with the exterior of one of these buildings without planning permission. (Hint: the part of town I live in is about 250-270 years old. It's called the new town because the old town is considerably older.)

Luckily the conservation listing applies to the exterior of the building, and to the floor plan, and dates to the 1970s -- it already had heating and plumbing and electricity. But satellite dishes are flat-out not allowed, and you're only allowed to put a TV aerial up to replace one that was already there, and while redecorating or furnishing (or rewiring) the interior is fine, structural alterations would require permission.

The common stairwell is jointly owned by about 11 households and commercial companies so fitting a stairlift, even if it was legal and practical, would require getting consent not only from the council but from 10 other businesses and households who have rights to the property (and whose walls you'd be drilling into).

There is only one way in/out of this flat; it wouldn't be legal to build one like this today. (It's not totally insane; the gas-burning bits, cooker and boiler, are all in the kitchen, which is at the opposite end of the flat from the entrance and pretty well firewalled by thick blocks of stone.) But it's absolutely not suitable as a retirement flat, and I'm going to have to move within the next decade or so.

Sheltered living is popular because nursing homes really suck (clue: I have very elderly parents, I've seen what nursing homes are like), and because paid carers are expensive -- there's an interim state where full nursing support isn't needed but it's useful to have a carer drop by twice a day to help with meals and necessary chores, and on call to handle emergencies. (80-90 year-olds with cognitive deterioration may be able to handle independent living while it's routine, but their exception handling disappears, to the point where they might not notice, let alone take appropriate action, if their spouse has a heart attack or stroke.)


Advertising, psychological manipulation, brainwashing, whatever you like to call it (personally I use the phrase "fucking people's heads up")... if only people would learn to recognise and reject it, rather than submitting to it.


Speaking for myself, I do recognize it ... and if this blog screed had been about gadgets I turned my nose up at in 2015, it'd have been one hell of a lot longer.

The key thing to emphasise, I guess, is that you don't own gadgets -- they own you, at least insofar as you have to spend time learning how they work, maintaining them, charging them, and upgrading them. Working out which ones are actually useful, and then establishing what the minimum set of them you need to do the job for you is, is the key thing.

Anecdote: a few years ago I was about to go on a business trip to the USA. It involved leaving for the airport at 3:30am, so I got everything packed and left my hand luggage contents plugged in and charging in my office overnight. Because I was on a minimalist kick, I pared it down to the minimum of electronics -- laptop, headphones, and iPhone. No ipad (the phone would do), no folding keyboard for phone (the laptop would do). Then I realized I hadn't backed up the laptop so I pulled it out of the bag and plugged in an external hard disk.

So guess what silly bugger forgot to put the laptop back in his carry-on at 3:15am before heading out the door?

Sometimes you can pare things down too far. If I'd taken the tiny folding keyboard I could have conceivably made it through a ten day trip with just my phone for email and even blog updates. If I'd taken the iPad I'd have been fine. Ditto if I'd remembered the laptop. But in the event it turned out to be an expensive oopsie -- it cost me an entry-level burner iPad on my first day on the ground (later recycled in the direction of a family member).

Too much minimalism leaves you prone to finding yourself unable to work (or play, or whatever). But owning too much stuff is also problematic -- before we take the planet into account. And I think most folks who won't buy the environmental argument will buy the "it owns you" angle if you hammer it hard enough.


That's where I was going ... avoiding having to move.

There's no new must-have tech toy for the middle-aged and older crowd this year as far as I can tell (Xmas gifting/wish lists). Looks like the market is saturated as people are at best replacing, upgrading, or customizing, if not shedding communications/entertainment technology at this point.

Oh yeah ... also have this heart monitor, step counter thingy now in the tech black hole drawer. Used that for almost half a year.


Speaking of ebook readers there is a gizmo I have looked at online but not quite had the guts to take the plunge on: Onyx Books T68. It's a 6.8" Android tablet with an e-ink screen -- 1440 x 1080 pixels -- optimized as an e-reader, but with the Google Play store included (for third party android apps). It's got bluetooth, so will work with an external keyboard and mouse for email/writing, runs the Kindle, Nook, and Google Reader apps if you want them -- and things like Evernote and Dropbox for getting your own work on/off the machine.

It's fairly low spec as Android devices go (512Mb RAM, 4Gb FLASH, micro-SD card only goes up to 32Gb, runs Android 4.0) and Onyx have it marked as "discontinued"; a newer version is still on sale but points to a proprietary (non Google Play) app/content store. Rumour has it that a similar-size machine with newer guts will be announced at CES later this month.

I have a tablet. I also have an e-ink ebook reader. This gadget doesn't hit my convergence sweet-spot because it's underpowered and some of what I do on a tablet really wants a fast colour display. But if the ereader broke and I wanted a replacement, I'd think very seriously about getting a replacement that can also do some of the tablet things, because functional overlap and low power consumption are good.


Totally true.

Stuff you didn't see me talking about? "Smart" electricity or gas meters that potentially allow attackers to determine if you're at home or away, making you a burglary target (thank you, utilities), "smart" thermostats, fridges with built-in screens that hook into google calendar except the API changed and the developers don't give a shit about updates (thank you, Samsung), light bulbs with colour-changing LEDs and proprietary APIs that lock out competitors (thank you, Philips), games consoles that spy on you (thank you, Microsoft), TVs that leak all your viewing info via unencrypted wifi (thank you, Panasonic) ... the list of guilty parties is seemingly endless.

If I ever go internet-of-things you'll know it's because I got a sudden yen to get into DIY projects using Raspberry Pi and Arduino components that are open and that I can upgrade and secure myself. But sometimes it's better for a light switch to be just a switch, and not an embedded ARM microcontroller talking to the rest of your house over a wireless protocol running on some kind of proprietary baseband processor that was probably rooted by the NSA, GCHQ, and three different Russian malware houses before you bought it, know what I'm saying?


That sounds very interesting, and I'll keep an eye out for it on CES videos and writeups.

I've been idly wishing for an ebook reader/tablet thing like that for a while. For me, all it would really have to do is let me sideload the FBReader APK (or run the old Java version, if that's still a thing), and I'd be perfectly happy because I want to decide what the text I'm reading looks like, thank you...

I could do without the other bolted-on bits and bobs. Bluetooth? Maybe. TTS? Nnno. I don't really need the wifi on my current - and slightly broken - Kobo Touch...

As far as new, indispensible gadgetry goes, I was honestly surprised by how well the little 8W (1.4A at 5V) USB-powered soldering iron I bought actually works.

Okay, it's got only the one - no replacements are sold seperately, that I've seen - fine tip, and probably runs a little too hot for some things, but it's slim, has a short grip-to-tip distance, and a nicely long thin cable with a TRS plug on one end, and USB at the other. It's got a soft-touch activation button that you've really got to keep covered, because it does cool down as quickly as it says it does - that only seem to work when powering the thing from a power bank, though; mine stays on all the time when powered from a wallwart, which is annoying, but still, it's the usual behaviour from a soldering iron, so while I'm not too sure what effect that'll have on the lifespan of the heating element, if it does burn out, I can just go buy another one for less than £10...


Being a crazed fanatic, I don't watch TV and anything I buy goes through the "does it enhance my life mission" test. My phone is switched off almost all the time unless I want to talk with anyone. My sole top of the range gadget is a computer I put together myself.


the little 8W (1.4A at 5V) USB-powered soldering iron
Ooh, ta. £5.8something on ebay for UK stock, £3.8something from China. UK stock version ordered and apparently dispatched a few minutes later...


IOT (cloud computing) ... No longer being able to know with any precision where an individual person's data is at any given moment. Charlie provided a link showing what level of destruction is needed to remove data off hardware (laptop) - what's the equivalent for removing data off the cloud?


Minor nuclear exchange?


Speaking of DIY computers, I just got fed up with my eyesight/coordination and got Nojay (who posts here occasionally) to finish bolting it together for me.

Hrm, design problems: I think (and he agrees) they should have iterated a couple more times before they finalized it for production. Not just the buggy manual, but things like the GPIO header cable having no indication as to which way round it goes on the RPi motheroard (it's not keyed), the USB cable to the secondary PCB fouling the ethernet port, the casing access hole for USB cables being basically a hole, and so on. It could have been so much better with just a little bit of thought ...!

I'm now charging it up and trying to locate my travel USB hub before I start trying to make it do useful things.


US-specific and culturally behind the times...

A SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime cable set top box arrived the week before Christmas. Comcast provided a CableCARD for decryption and activated it without arguing. Three independent tuners that deliver three high-def video streams over the household LAN. I haven't got around to working out the details, but it looks like VLC can be convinced to do both Slingbox-like transcoding and forwarding as well as acting like a DVR. We have cable because my wife likes it. I tend to watch things in a window up in the corner of my monitor on the occasions when I do watch, and this box does a terrific job of that -- much better than the other arrangements I've had.


Well, considering its purpose was (and still is?) to encourage children to learn hardware by hacking around, introducing them to the sort of issues that are very common and that they should learn to avoid seems reasonable!


Yeah, me too.
WON'T have any of it in the house.
It's going to be amusing, for certain values of amusing, as in a year or two, all London properties are supposed to be fitted with the "new smart" meters.
I'm going to tell them to stick it where the sun don't shine ....
I wonder how long I'll be able top hold out before they get a court order?
I would guess, given my luck, about 5 minutes before "everyone discovers" that said "Internet-of-things" gizmos are a disaster & it all goes into reverse....


That or a major magnetic field event. We've seen more aurora this year and the forecast shows some activity starting tomorrow (Jan 3 through 11 2016).


Weird thing about DIY PCs is that in the 80s early 90s it was cheaper to put your own together than buy one. Then that reversed until a few years ago. Now we are back to DIY being cheaper. The really expensive part is the CPU, but quite often a top of the range Intel isn't needed if you put in a good graphics card.
Wondering if/when some serious 64 bit ARM chips start competing with WinTel


How frequent are Carrington Events?
We don't actually know, do we .....


At the DIY end, the Raspberry Pi 2 has a quad-core 900MHz ARM Corex A7 cpu, a GPU, HDMI output, 4 USB 2 ports, 1Gb of RAM, and a microSDHC slot for the boot media. It benchmarks about 40 times as fast as a SPARCStation 20, so it's a very respectable desptop by 2000-2002 standards, and it's dirt-cheap.

The Apple A9X CPU in the iPad Pro has 4Gb of RAM on board, dual 64-bit ARM cores clocked at 2.26GHz, and a PowerVR Series 7XT GPU with 12 cores. So roughly equivalent to a circa-2007 Macbook with Intel GPU. This probably defines the upper end of what you can get with ARM hardware today; it's rapidly converging on current laptop performance, except for the elaborate caching, better memory, and much higher performance GPUs.

If Google deliver on their promise of merging Chrome and Android, then within 1-2 years high-end phones with HDMI out and bluetooth keyboard/mouse will make reasonable (sluggish but acceptable-for-office-work) desktop computers: just plug into a TV screen and peripherals. (You can already get fast 250Gb micro-SD cards, and current-gen Android phones will take up to 128Gb cards, so storage isn't the bottleneck ...)


Wondering if/when some serious 64 bit ARM chips start competing with WinTel

That's looking like the fifth of never; the hardware exists, but no one is buying and absolutely no one is offering consumer motherboards.

I am reminded of Transmeta, somehow.

Apple has three times Intel's market cap and intends to converge OSX and iOS and Intel can hardly stop them. That doesn't mean there's going to be consumer hardware components; that's the sort of thing Apple is generally against. Same goes for Google, but Google has no interest in traditional desktop hardware at all. So while there are already ARM Chromebooks, it seems very unlikely there will be consumer priced ATX-anything ARM motherboards available.

And the current value of WinTel is the sunk costs; we have all those spreadsheet macros, all those customized integration hooks to the CRM software, etc. Changing away from WinTel involves a whole new mode of business. Mobile/wearable will get that (are getting that), but new desktop/dev workstation hardware hasn't got anything like the traction and most business tasks benefit from larger displays, the area where mobile is weak.

So I suspect WinTel will linger like COBOL and for exactly the same reasons, quite possibly past 2038.


Far from London here, but I had someone knocking on my door the other week about smart meters.

Told him NO...

He seemed to have become pretty well accustomed to being told NO... he seemed to be expecting it.

If in the end obstinacy fails, I shall resort to jamming.


What's equally interesting is Intel's acquisition of Altera (the number two FPGA company). While this is primarily aimed at the data centre market, it will be interesting to see whether Intel makes any attempt to push programmable logic into the personal computing arena.

From the other direction, Xilinx (the number one FPGA company) is very definitely in bed with ARM. When you've got four 64-bit CPUs and a pair of FPUs, plus a chunk of support circuitry and lots of space to add your own logic, then there's scope for some fun stuff ;) can now get an earlier generation Zynq in a Pi form factor for €99 - see the ZynqBerry


Depends on circumstances... ready-made PCs don't look so good when you knock out the bits you don't need. Like any parts from your previous PC that can be reused, as long as there hasn't been some standards shift that precludes this; or a pre-loaded OS which never even gets booted as the first thing I do is put Linux on it; or... the super-duper-pooper-scooper graphics card.

That was the notable point I encountered putting together my current PC, which was all new as standards shifts in memory, CPU, hard drive, and expansion card interfaces had by now piled up to the point where I couldn't reuse any old parts any more. All new, that is, except for the graphics card, which was second-hand. Reason being that all the PCIe graphics cards on sale were way over the top for my needs, and priced accordingly. I don't play games, so I have no use for more than a fairly rudimentary graphics capability, whereas having a good main CPU is important.


Intel know they're in a hole. Something like 60% of their revenue is still "PC Client", with ~25% server and then everything else. Mobile's a lost cause; internet-of-things has terrible growth potential (because people don't want a new thing just for the internet-of-things part and the places internet-of-things has value are big ticket items, not your toaster) and embedded is full of starving East Asian firms, ARM chips, and customers who are price-conscious on the scale of fractional cents.

I'd suspect the interest in FPGA isn't for desktop for for the "this is really general, we need one fabbed part for all the verticals" approach to "everything else"; networking hardware, internet-of-things, and embedded. That pushes the axis of competition back into what Intel is very good at -- big production runs with good yields -- and away from being nimble at design.

And while chip fabrication process is their one, true, uncontested advantage, it's also a bit like the Cascadia Fault. It's going to go, but there's no telling when.

DARPA's direct electron beam lithography or the people wet-printing circuitry or the folks determined to get solar cells for three cents the square metre via bacterial deposition or something else entirely will eventually erase that advantage. And in the meantime it's an increasingly expensive thing to maintain against decreasing real returns.

That Xilinx gadget looks very tempting indeed. I keep hoping someone's going to consumerize one of the ARM server motherboards, so I can get something that'll run Fedora and transform XML fast enough for me to consider it practical as a workstation.


In Australia, JB HiFi does stock the Kobo readers - and amazingly enough, the price less GST is actually less than the US RRP on the Glo HD. (The Aura H2O actually costs less than the US RRP even after GST.) They have exactly the same screen as the Kindles, but take standard ePub files (and of course use the Kobo store, which I switched to anyhow after B&N made it more difficult to get their ebooks into Calibre).


Mmmmm... I prefer having more vertical space. I hated having to rotate my left monitor back to horizontal but it was the easiest vsync/tearing fix available and I've got enough issues with the transition to Plasma from the old crufty mess of the KDE I was used to.

Still a very sexy screen. I'm lusting after a 2560x1440 upgrade since the only thing I play is dwarf fortress and I went on a bender of upscaling lots of the mostly-smaller-than-24x24 pixel-per-tile tilesets to 32x48 or 36x54 so they don't get sized down as far on my 1920x1080 monitor. Being able to run it at native resolution on a 1440p screen would be glorious.

With the building computers post further up I saw a comment about a second-hand video card and most being overkill. I grabbed an nvidia GT 730 (make sure you get the GDDR5 version) because the integrated on my i3-3220 was starting to get buggy.

Oh, I guess the GT 730 is my most recent loved tech purchase, it was uhhh, a bit over $60 US after shipping and such. I needed vga/dvi, the hdmi is a nice bonus since I can link it to the tv if I want and it gives more options for upgrades, it runs cooler than the integrated had been (I had a GT 440 before which keeled over earlier in the year so I was on the IGPU for a while) but of course dwarf fortress doesn't care what graphics stuff you have, just single core performance.


I suspect we'll get builder friendly 64 bit ARM chipsets and socketed motherboards shortly after DF hits version 1.0 (it just hit 0.42.04 after how many years of development again?) but we'll all be living inside of a simulation running on a minecart supercomputer inside of an instance of dwarf fortress being played by a strong AI god which is currently annoyed that converting the entire mass of Mars into computronium STILL wasn't enough to raise the FPS over 30... well, Jupiter IS right there...


As an aside, you can remove all user data from the cloud with a single can of ravioli... at sufficient velocity.


Your post inspired me to poke round Amazon for graphics cards, and it seems that the situation has changed in the year or so since I put that PC together. The new cards are still all massive overkill in terms of processing power, but can now be a lot cheaper; some of the least massive ones are now down to £20 odd, which I consider reasonable. Slight problem in that they are also physically massive, with enormous fanless heatsinks that present a risk of fouling whatever's in the next slot, but I dare say it's possible to take them off and fit a thin one with a fan instead.

The other development is more ominous. While they now have a lot more of the kind of second-hand cards that I did end up buying - price around £15, mostly apparently removed from ready-made PCs - than they had a year or so back, most of those cards now lack a VGA output. I see the unpleasant possibility looming that by the time my PC next finds itself falling short of my requirements, I won't be able to get a motherboard with PCIe slots at all, and all the cards for whatever will have replaced it will have only digital outputs. And it is impossible to get a CRT monitor already, let alone get one with a digital input at some point in the future. So I will then have all the additional hassle of having to build a video DAC.


I wonder which political party, will "grasp the nettle" ( Of crawling to the money & the power ) & propose to make it mandatory, subject to fines & imprisonment, that you MUST have a smart-meter in your house?
My money is on the "greens" & then the SNP in that order.

Or is the resistance to these things growing, for reasons suggested by Charlie?
In which case, we might escape?


Or... EU regulation states that all new contracts must have a smart meter. Suppliers aren't allowed to offer a service without one. So you're OK until you switch providers, or your current provider revises their "plans" and ceases to offer the one you're currently on so you have to take up a new one. Then it's a condition in the contract and you have to either accept it or generate your own juice.

Similar sort of deal to black boxes in cars becoming inescapable as a result of insurance companies' conditions on policies, only they are more likely to do it of their own accord without the need for a regulatory push.


I really like my Galaxy Tab 4, which I technically got late in 2014 but which I'll hype anyway. I'd resisted getting a tablet for a while but when I gave in the technology was advanced enough not to disappoint me. (I see up in #87 that I'm not alone in liking the Tab.) I thought that getting a tablet and a tiny keyboard would let me write things on the go, which is true to first approximation; I haven't writen as much fiction when out and about as I'd hoped I would. But I've finally joined the ebook movement and it's much more readable than the frankly horrid reader screens of only a few years ago. Having an internet connection at the occasional wifi hotspot is nice too.

The notable accessory is a Zagg keyboard which turns it into a perfectly useful and very tiny laptop. I've gotten the generic keyboard for 7" tablets and have seen the keyboard specifically made for the Tab 4 - but nobody in my area seems to actually carry it. The slightly worse fit of the generic hardshell keyboard isn't really a killer but it's frustrating that I can't seem to find the exactly correct unit.

A new thing that I found useful but doesn't go beep is a Leatherman Wingman. Yes, there are many Leatherman tools, and my Wingman has a very nice big brother in my Charge TTI. So why the cheap little entry level tool? Because for many years I've carried a Victorinox Swisschamp, which is the knife you get when you tell engineers "I want all the things," and hadn't needed any lesser multitool. The Wingman covers the places the Swisschamp is weak: a thumb-opening lock knife, big pliers, and a belt clip.

Oh, and my 5TB external hard drive. That's not interesting to use but it's a damn huge memory store in one little black brick.


Well, my tariff is obsolete, but the supplier admits that it's cheaper than any of their new ones, and isn't even asking me to change (well beyond saying I can save another £4/year with paperless billing and without changing tariff).


Nah. Look at the record. One of the Tory parties (i.e. including Labour, if Corbyn gets knifed) will bolster its greenwash by doing that, after being asked to by the suppliers and banks. Banks? Yes, because they will also require direct debit. Particularly useful because the authority you give contains no constraints on what is charged to it or the maximum amount charged.


So I suspect WinTel will linger like COBOL and for exactly the same reasons, quite possibly past 2038.

There is a novel of mine, currently at the sample-plus-outline-and-pitch stage and simmering on the back-burner (because US editors aren't buying UK-setting near-future Charlie-Stross-writes-Iain-Banks-style-gothic-horror right now) where one of the protagonists is a QA engineer working for a bank, circa 2030, in the Legacy Spreadsheet Warehouse. His job is to check legacy spreadsheets for correctness against the contracts they implement.

It's 2030. The warehouse is an in-house cloud service horking up VMs containing an instance of Windows XP running Excel 2003 in a thoroughly insulated sandbox, because this is the standard platform the bank runs on, except in the rare instances when they need to blow the cobwebs off an emulator for something even older ... like VisiCalc on an Apple II. (The workplace horror angle is that the scope of the job is getting bigger as initial optimistic estimates of the project time line are repeatedly being blown away, but the management response is "shoot the monkey's feet, make the monkey dance". It's an Augean stables riff, in other words.)

Anyway, I ran the setup for this past my beta testers and one of them, who -- ahem -- works in investment banking, nodded wisely then said, "you know this is already a thing? We're supposed to complete the process by 2018 but it ain't gonna happen so the statutory deadline will move."

Microsoft ended long term support for XP in 2014. That senior banking folks think it's entirely realistic that banks will still be using it in-house in 2030 should tell you something about the banking industry.


It makes perfect sense to me, and I have used all the cited products, even VisiCalc!


I (nearly) finished changing all my home lighting from CFL to LED. I found early off-brand LED bulbs to be very unreliable (as were CFL) but I managed to get free replacements for defective ones and reliable brands like Philips are getting cheaper. I got programmable TRV heads (not networked) for my central heating and reduced my heating gas bill by 10% I replaced my Raspberry Pi B+ with a Pi 2 which is running a script on cron to test if my website servers are up and email me if they aren't. I got a Japanese stapleless stapler for Xmas because I put odd stuff on my Amazon wishlist.


I was involved in a discussion thread elsewhere recently involving someone who had been contracted to read some old data off 5.25" floppies last used in the 1980s. Due to legal constraints he had to do this in a solicitor's office so that chain of custody of the floppies was not compromised. Formats? The data supposedly on the floppies? What hardware was used to create them originally? All unknown.

In the end he was able, thanks to a lot of forensic work and some oddball hardware to prove the discs had contained the data they were supposed to have contained by hex-dumping a few readable sectors. That was enough for him to get paid.


Oh, how nice!
Another reason to love the EU - NOT.
What will happen WHEN the crooks start burgling people's houses, by using the smart-meter tip-off, I wonder?


No, not the Banking "industry" - something about a (relatively) reliable platform.
I'm still using XP.
As discussed some months ago, if/when I build myself my next desktop-box, I will switch O/S, but I might still end up with Win10 (Which I will have to pay for, of course, grrr ....


My gizmo of the year is the Moto G 3rd Gen. I bought it because it was the cheapest phone on the market that still stands up well against the high-end models, and I wanted to break out of the 24-month mobile plans that are very much the norm here by buying a handset outright.

What impressed me most about the phone is the lack of Motorola bloatware that is included – something like six apps, and two of them are being retired with the Android update which is currently being rolled out. My intention was always to run Cyanogen Mod on this device, but the Motorola skin is unencumbered enough that I'm happy to keep it on there for a little while longer.

My biggest gripe about this phone is that although it has expandable memory options, it apparently won't read microSD cards larger than 32Gb. Considering I want to use this phone for podcasts, audiobooks, music and photos – and given that my data plan doesn't make streaming music feasible – this is a bit of a constraint. But at least it has the battery life to make it possible to listen to hours worth of media over the course of a day – as well as make a few calls, perform a little web browsing and give me gps directions to a few locations – and still hold close to half charge when I go to bed at night. The water-resistance isn't a bad feature either.


As time goes on I find less need to use MS as opposed to a modern Linux variant


Unless you're a PC gamer or have a specific commercial need, I can't think of any reason to not throw Windows out of your personal computer in favour of Linux.


Yes, there are many Leatherman tools...

Oh, hey, if we're doing things that don't go beep, this is the year I bought a substantial multi-tool. (There was an outbreak of sporran re-arrangement, and I stopped carrying the Swiss rescue knife in favour of the multi-tool.)

It's from SOG on the theory that anybody who has a fusewell spike as a standard tool option is making the things for a market intolerant of quality assurance lapses. While they have the same failure mode as any other multi-tool plier (the handles can pinch you if you get your finger placement wrong), I actually like the pliers and the wire cutter on them.


Can a car count as a gadget?

Normally I'd say not, but I'm inclined to make an exception for the shiny new Nissan Leaf which materialised on my drive a few months back.

Dashboard straight out of ST:TNG? Check.

Noise like a smartphone booting up when you switch it on? Check

Not quite enough battery capacity to give 100% confidence that you'll alwYs be able to do everything you need to do with it? Check.

But hey, it saves me enough in diesel to almost cover the lease, it's quiet and smooth enough to make the power train in a Mercedes S-Class feel like a crude hack and it makes a (sucessful) 420 miles in a day round trip to drop off my Mum's christmas present feel like an adventure... :-)

Microsoft ended long term support for XP in 2014. That senior banking folks think it's entirely realistic that banks will still be using it in-house in 2030 should tell you something about the banking industry.

A few years back I was being paid money to write Perl glue between business logic in Excel spreadsheets and the customer data living in Oracle. For a Large UK Consumer Bank. Wouldn't surprise me if it was still running :-/


Now that this thread has made me think about it — I've find that I've purchased surprisingly little new technology in the last year. Or, indeed, the last two years.

  • I'm still using my 2013 MacBook Air — and not really feeling any performance problems. Previously I tended to update every couple of years, but these days I tend to spin up code stuff in the cloud rather than running N virtual machines on my own box.
  • Still using my original iPad Air + Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard. Mostly for reading ebooks, and on-the-road writing/work.
  • One software game changer for me is the totally awesome Duet Display which lets me use my iPad as a second display for my laptop when on the road. Wired via the lightning cable rather than over wifi — so enough bandwidth to not be super laggy. So portrait format second screen. So, so useful.
  • I did buy a new iPhone this year — but I got the "old" 5s since I find all the 6's too inconveniently large (despite having large hands). To be honest I find the 5s a bit too big for comfort — my old 4s felt about ideal to me size wise (and only got replaced coz I broke it). If Apple stay XXL I'm probably switching to Android next time.
  • I also recently got myself a new bluetooth headset - Plantronics Voyager Legend - which like the phone is a previous generation product. Because a bunch of folk I asked preferred the older version. Very happy with it, and vastly better than my old wired headset. I can now stand and wander around the room while on conference calls which is nice. Never use it outside the house ;-)

Now that I've noticed it, the lack of new toys seems odd. For the last 15ish years I was on a regular annual-ish, or at most biennial, upgrade cycle. Because I really felt the need. Especially on the coding side. Now I'm using three year old tech for most of my work, and haven't noticed.

That probably says something interesting about how many of my cycles are now being burned out in the server farms of the world, rather than the box that's sitting on my lap.

It's starting to feel like I might finally be getting to a place where I can use computing devices until they break, rather than until I need something faster/larger.


Nothing remarkable for me in hardware, but I got StaffPad as soon as it was released and it's been incredibly handy for this not very good amateur composer. I wouldn't mind the slightly better pen input on a Surface Pro 4, but my first run Surface Pro 3 is certainly good enough.


As time goes on I find less need to use MS as opposed to a modern Linux variant
Update of an earlier question:
WHICH particular Linux variant?
Given the erm "discussions" people have had here about the "virtues" or otherwise of same.... ?


"that you MUST have a smart-meter in your house?"

In Australia there's no legal compulsion, just the power companies won't connect you unless you have one. Mostly it's built into the connection charge but there are times you have to pay for it. The most annoying part in NSW is that they're completely opaque, there's a lot of data but we can't access it and from what I can tell the power companies aren't using it either. So much potential to be a really useful gadget, wasted.


First time I ever used Delphi 1.0 was working for a major Australian bank in 2010. It was used to write an interface to allow a mainframe to talk to some whizzy new hardware (some kind of phone system, IIRC) that only came with DLLs for a geriatric Windows version and someone had written the code in Delphi 1. The alternative was VB 3, so I was suitable grateful.

Same bank also used 3" floppy disks to move data around, and was busy buying a stock of 3" USB floppy drives against the day they were no longer available. For whaever reason the software that needed them would not work with solid state USB drives.

Part of what drives this is scale - when you have tens of thousands of workstations, more users than that by 50% or more, the severity of the edge cases becomes significant. Australia also has sheer physical issues to cope with, like "mobile banking" in remote Australia during the monsoon (satellite internet doesn't work very well during the monsoon).


WHICH particular Linux variant?

Whom do you know who might provide linux support? Ask them what their favourite distro is.

Alternatively, it doesn't matter. All the major[1] distros are robust and resolute things these days.

Try some "live" (runs from USB or optical media) versions, see which one you like (making sure it copes well with your hardware in the process), install it. Done.

[1] it does active bug tracking


"...World Heritage Site status; this is applied for at a national level (I think) but managed by the United Nations."

UNESCO keeps the list 'management' is mostly done at state level (unless you're talking about 'management' of delegates with gifts and fast talking re Australia's Barrier Reef).


The most annoying part in NSW is that [electrical smart meters are] completely opaque, there's a lot of data but we can't access it and from what I can tell the power companies aren't using it either. So much potential to be a really useful gadget, wasted.

So you can't see it, the electric company can't see it, and your power meter is only talking to the NSA?

This would sound stupid if we hadn't seen too many things like this already.


There was an outbreak of sporran re-arrangement, and I stopped carrying the Swiss rescue knife in favour of the multi-tool.

When wearing my kilt and sporran I stick one of my Leatherman tools into the kilt's waistband. (With a belt clip, not as a giant kilt pin; that sounds impractical.) My sporran is the classic leather pouch on a chain and doesn't hold as much as the many pockets I'm used to. Do you know if there is a nerd sporran which carries more without making the wearer look like he just mugged Batman? The usual answer in my area is to buy a Utilikilt, which I've also done, but that removes the sporran entirely.


Now that I've noticed it, the lack of new toys seems odd. For the last 15ish years I was on a regular annual-ish, or at most biennial, upgrade cycle. Because I really felt the need. Especially on the coding side. Now I'm using three year old tech for most of my work, and haven't noticed.

Part of it is the taper at the end of Moore's Law, but a chunk could be down to age; learning to use new gadgets soaks up cognitive bandwidth and as we get older there's less of that to spare.


Oooh, I could use a nerd sporran! (At least, once or twice a year when I have reason to haul out my kilt.) Anyone got any suggestions?


My now-retired XPeria Z Ultra also supposedly had a 32GB card size limit. It actually turned out to use FAT, and if I formatted a 64GB card using Fat32, it was perfectly happy.

Okay, my shinies.

a) A Pebble Time Steel. Having a display that's always there, so I needn't get my phone out of my pocket to reject a call when I'm driving, or I can follow directions keeping my eyes ahead instead of loking down, is rather nice.

b) A Nexus 6P. It's smaller than my now-retired XPeria Z Ultra, and it doesn't have the ability to take a microSD card, but I've got the 128GB version and that is for now fine. Plain Marshmallow without a skin is lovely, and I'm now happy talking to my phone.

c) Much more expensive than those put together: a porcelain and titanium assembly now built into my jaw. Well, it's reasonably shiny so long as I brush my teeth properly.


Microsoft ended long term support for XP in 2014

I have a virtual machine image running Windows 2000 that I use - because we've got some software I've never had the time to port away from the build tools that are now no longer available.

So long as that image keeps working ...


Nerd Sporran

Somebody should suggest to ThinkGeek that they make a sporran in black tactical fabric with MOLLE attachment loops. After all, if they can do it for a BBQ apron...


Charlie - Interesting. If Wikipedia is correct, you're about three years younger than I am. And yet fountain pens were old-fashioned and obsolete when I was a boy. I don't think I even saw one outside of a museum, movies, and TV until I was a teen.

It's as if the US and UK were different countries.


The Kilt shop just along the street from my place does all sorts of unconventional sporrans and I suspect they'd be willing to make something special to order in, say, ballistic nylon with USB ports.


Second the endorsement for Ulysses. Some idiot wrote an in-depth review in March.

Scrivener is too complicated for me, and Byword is too simple. Ulysses is just right.

And unlike Scrivener, Ulysses has a companion iPad app AND an iPhone app in beta which I've been using a few weeks now, and which is quite good.

I'm not suggesting anybody who's satisfied with Scrivener should switch. I'm just chatting.


The Onyx device sounds overly compromised to me. When I use my iPad mini, it's because it's a fully functinal tablet -- indeed, I wish it did more, not less. When I use my Kindle Paperwhite, I want a single-function device optimized for reading books and nothing else.

De gustibus.


Second the endorsement for the Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard.

It's got a nice typing feel, but so do many other mobile keyboards. The thing I like best about the Microsoft is that it travels separately from my iPad.

When using an external keyboard, I like to switch fast between using the iPad with the external keyboard, and holding the iPad in my hands the normal way. When I open the keyboard, it pairs immediately with the iPad, and I can drop the iPad in the keyboard and type. Then I pick up the iPad, close the keyboard, and go back to using the iPad normally. I can sit on the sofa with a lapdesk and switch back and forth comfortably as many times as I want. Same thing on an airplane with the tray table in front of me. And for traveling in my briefcase, the keyboard folds into its own built-in protective cover.

As for desktop keyboards: I generally feel like a barbarian when discussing keyboards with nerds. Everybody has their favorite expensive boutique keyboard. I'm quite happy with the standard Apple USB keyboard. I have two identical units, and when they get filthy -- I eat at my desk -- I run one through the dishwasher and switch to the other.


Not a 2015 purchase, but I love this LG Electronics LG Tone Pro Wireless Sterio Headset. It's my desk phone, personal phone, and I use it to listen to podcasts when I'm out walking the dog, about 90 minutes per day.


Gizmos I have enjoyed having in 2015:

* A sunshade for my laptop, made out of some black illustration board, some tape, and some magnets so it can hang off the ones embedded in my Air's lid. I tried some commercially-made ones but they all had problems; mine weighs next to nothing, and is somewhat angled so I can sit on the ground in a park with my laptop on my lap and still see what I'm doing in Illustrator.

* LIFX bulbs. Colored LEDs and all the sorts of features that come with that; it's pretty nice to have a gradually-changing set of colors wake me up, and to have mood lighting as a casual constant luxury. I prefer these to the Philips Hues, largely because they have a full spectrum at a constant strength - the Hues have really terrible blues and greens. They also all connect to wi-fi instead of needing a hub.

Sadly I have really not enjoyed the pocket-sized drug oven I bought this year after breaking my beloved bong; the Firefly is a gorgeous object, but it runs through battery power like crazy. I have to swap to the spare battery just about every time I change to a new bowl. Lately I've been thinking of finding a really pretty hookah to keep on my desk instead. (Hooray for living in a green state.)


LIFX bulbs. Colored LEDs

I have the cheap version of that, a red MR16 12V LED bulb. Since I already have 12V for lighting and fans it was easy enough to buy a $4 bulb online and plug that in instead of an existing lamp. By turning on other warm white (ish) lamps I can get ,more light and colour. It periodically amuses/annoys me when I'm reading a New Scientist and the pictures or figures make no sense in monochrome light.

One recent gadget is a pair of 120mm quiet computer case fans that I've installed behind on of the vents in the brick bedroom wall. Forcing that ceiling-ish vent cools the room much faster than I expected it to, and the fans are quiet enough that I can sleep with them on. Again, 12V already available so the cost was about $AUS11 (10 fans, $1 switch plus wire I buy by the roll)


If Wikipedia is correct, you're about three years younger than I am. And yet fountain pens were old-fashioned and obsolete when I was a boy.
Mitch, I already had more or less this conversation someplace upthread, and yet I only live in a different part of the UK!


(and FWIW the smart metering is mostly being forced under Liberal/right wing governments. It's a good idea if it allows them to pass peak charges onto the users, because Australia's grid is mostly build to take peak air conditioning loads in the 5-7pm summer heatwaves. At which time PV can still be useful, but mostly idiots building mcmansions that are designed around 10kW or more of aircon. Charging them appropriately for the grid expansion and peak power use would be a good idea, but I think many of them would vomit if they actually had to pay it.

We see wholesale prices over $10/kWh during those peaks. And by "we" I don't mean us microgenerators feeding our PV excess into the grid, that "we" still gets the desultory 5c/kWh we always get.

But the power companies are well aware that a huge percentage of ozzies have PV on the roof and many of us dream of an economical battery system that would let us dump the grid. Tesla, unfortunately, costs at best 15c/kWh for storage, so there's a bit of price room before those become economical (and they're grid-interactive anyway, but the cost point remains)


It's as if the UK was multiple different countries. :)

I thought I understood the difference between the UK, Great Britain, and England, but then I watched the video linked in the preceding paragraph. Now I realize I don't understand it, and I never will. I am just not smart enough.

Related: I skimmed this Wikipedia page on British nobility this morning. I'll never understand that either.

It's as if this stuff accrued in a plan that's only loosely organized, over the course of 1,000 years.


Ahem, google is your friend: just punch in tactical sporran and you will be rewarded ....


WRT Sporrans, for a while I've considered going to the hardware store and getting a tool belt to go with my kilt, but I don't wear it often enough to bother. But you can get a variety of pouches to hang off a belt to suit your needs. I think I first got the idea after seeing a video of a handyman who did that.


I suspect William Gibson might call that a Mall Ninja Sporran.


The thing I'm referring to as a sporran is an Arcteryx Maka 2 and I have the lamentable habit of wearing it kilt or no. (Utilikilts aren't, really.)

It's just the right size so I can carry enough stuff that the "bitterly regret the absence" twitches and the "this is heavy" balance works out.


It's an unfortunate name but may help.
Charlie grew up in Leeds, Yorkshire, (region E) specifically UKE42 and I in Dumbarton, Scotland (region M) specifically UKM31. This means that we lived in different education authorities, just like if we'd lived in different states of the USA. Better?


But it's absolutely not suitable as a retirement flat, and I'm going to have to move within the next decade or so.

Yes. My 1961 split level with an entrance at none of the living levels either needs to be sold, seriously renovated, or torn down with a replacement built. I'm for the later. My wife isn't quite on board. But since 75% of my value is currently in my dirt a tear down isn't all that bad a choice. When we have to move it would likely be a long way from here due to the economics of the markets.

Sheltered living is popular because nursing homes really suck (clue: I have very elderly parents, I've seen what nursing homes are like), and because paid carers are expensive -- there's an interim state where full nursing support isn't needed but it's useful to have a carer drop by twice a day to help with meals and necessary chores, and on call to handle emergencies. (80-90 year-olds with cognitive deterioration may be able to handle independent living while it's routine, but their exception handling disappears, to the point where they might not notice, let alone take appropriate action, if their spouse has a heart attack or stroke.

We're in the middle of this with my mother in law and have several friends with parents in similar situations. We are all working hard to keep our parents out of nursing homes. (With mostly parents who are in serious denial of their options.) We are all making plans to make sure we can live somewhere NOT in a nursing home for as long as possible.


But owning too much stuff is also problematic -- before we take the planet into account.

Every month or two I dump my daily visit clients / take on flights bag of "stuff" out on the bed and only repack about 3/4s to 2/3s of it. I swear stuff keeps crawling into it at night.


SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime cable set top

Just skimmed their web site and didn't see this. Where does it get the channel line ups and schedules? And is there a cost?


I think I may have mentioned this around here once before. At a top 10 P&C insurance company in the US in 1980 we were told about their 5 year project to eliminate the autocoder emulation running on the 360 "some old version of the 60s OS" running in a VM on a system 3330. They were on year 8 of the project. The internal line given with a wink and nod was it should be done in 2 or 3 years.


Microsoft ended long term support for XP in 2014.

As I understand it if you are willing to open your vaults and let MS extract from them as they desire you can get support for vintage products for as long as the vaults have gold.


Should have read the article. Easy to use, but last time I commuted regularly by bike I was in Sheffield so vibrating handlebars wouldn't even register :)

Fair enough. I've never been to Sheffield! Nonetheless, the concept intrigues enough for it to have got in my mind, which is rarely good news for my wallet. The top post at the moment says, "This question caught my attention like a snagged fingernail, and it's still pulling at me: here's my first cut at an answer." And that's how I feel about the bike, except it's a thing rather than a question or idea (which also get lodged in my mind too often).


I get the general gist. The specifics are confusing.


"Tactical sporran" would be a good name for a podcast.


"I skimmed this Wikipedia page on British nobility this morning. I'll never understand that either."

Nor do most of us. Its relevance to the everyday life of anyone who isn't directly involved with it (which is nearly everyone) is essentially nil, and "nobs exist" is an adequate working summary.


My dad still uses a fountain pen for stuff like writing letters which aren't worth firing up the computer for. I on the other hand haven't owned one since school. (To be pedantic, a cartridge pen rather than a true fountain pen; this allowed for the amusement of concealing cartridges resting on the bulbs of the tubular incandescent reading lights in the library.)

In early school years, to be allowed to write with a wet-ink pen was a privilege accorded to those considered able to write neatly enough in pencil. Biro was Not Allowed under any circumstances because it was "too messy", despite the ubiquity of disproofs-by-counterexample. Desks with holes to hold inkpots for dip pens were common, although the inkpots themselves had long vanished.


It's as if this stuff accrued in a plan that's only loosely organized, over the course of 1,000 years.
Only make that more like 1300 years, at least ....
Oh yes & what is this "plan" of which you speak?


This thing about pens is a classic case of the future being unevenly distributed. I went through my schooldays using fountain pens (mostly the Platignum schoolchildren's cartridge ones), and if you had been trained how to hold a pen such that a classic nib works, they were as easy as a ballpoint.

Odd thing: the Platignum factory was, until just a few years ago, visible as you approached our town. It was right next to the platinum refinery. Coincidence?


"It's as if the UK was multiple different countries. :)"

It is :-) Seriously. I have often had arguments with transpondians when I have pointed out that the UK is more federal than the USA. Without any kind of planned structure, of course.


That's actually the opinion of the real nobs, too. It's only the jumped-up spin doctors and money-grubbers who are impressed by their own magnificence.


I think Scalzi needs to add "Nerd Sporrans" to his list of band names.

My only tech purchase of any note for 2015 was the iPhone 6 (not plus), which does all of the things the clever phones are meant to do, and has a really gorgeous camera. I've paired it with the Mophie battery case, which will bring the phone battery from 10% to a full 100% in short order, plus it makes the phone much easier to handle.

I got the Anker PowerPort 6 in 2014, but it's turned out to be a really handy bit of kit; the spouse has a bad habit of absconding with the Apple chargers, and I can recharge the phone, Mophie, and iPad Mini at the same time (and more quickly than the Apple chargers manage).

I also got an Alienware X51 in 2014 for the living room, with the excuse that it not only doesn't look like a desktop box, and is also used for streaming/iTunes viewing, but the real reason is to game on the 55" HDTV (why are HDTVs marketed in inches?) at 1920 by 1080 - bwahaha!


Specialist toy: iOptron SkyTracker. Medium-sized metal box, weighs about a kilo, fits on a standard tripod, keeps a 2kg camera+lens in sync with the rotation of the stars for ten minutes at a time. Lets you take plausible astrophotographs with kit that fits easily in hand luggage (OK, tripod probably happier in the hold). Rendered much more useful by a £10 no-brand-name intervalometer from eBay.

Less specialist: Fitbit Charge HR. Much better at detecting activity than the WiiFit U pedometer I'd been using for the last few years; the website is nicely integrated and makes calorie-counting sufficiently convenient that I actually do it.

Oh, and upgraded from an iPhone 4S to a 6S+; much prettier screen, you can use an 80x50 ssh terminal on it indefinitely, reliable two-day battery life, but not as huge a boost in capabilities as I'd have expected from having multiplied lots of the meaningless benchmark numbers by five.


Oh, and a power brick. Not a particularly exciting power brick (PowerZen 16000mAh), but being able to decouple 'find a power outlet' and 'charge your devices' is fantastically helpful when travelling, as is not having to make the choice between charging one device at a time and filling a rucksack pocket with large awkward-shaped spiky adaptors.


I didn't class it as a gizmo, honest.

The art form was managing to persuade my beloved that replacing our near-decade-old TV with a 50" 4K telly was "future-proofing", Muhahaha... Didn't take much effort :) and we have since added "rubbish at Battlefront" to our list of achievements, once the kids were in bed obviously ;)


A few years ago my father sent me a cartridge fountain pen, a neighbor of his made the turned wood bits and used pre-made hardware. Its a nice looking, solid pen. I don't have a use for a fountain pen; I don't write much by hand, have terrible handwriting, and there's that hand-smeary bit mentioned above.
But, as I said. it's a nice pen, and I wanted to find a use for it. After a quick Googling I found that ScotchBrite™ (iirc) sponges are conductive and can be used to make a stylus. So that's what I did with it; cut a bit of sponge to fit where the cartridge went with enough sticking out to make a tip. Works well, but is heavier than your usual stylus, so I have to be sure not to drop it on the ipad.


My gadget purchase was a Lumia 640, replacing a 635 with a cracked screen. Maybe 50~75% as good as an iPhone, but much more affordable. The good: the camera mostly, 1gb of RAM means explorer doesn't crash as often when viewing "Busy" web pages. The bad: underpopulated app store, abandoned Mac utility, OS transition and how far will M$ go salting the earth Balmer stood on? The phone itself is as good as I'd hope for the $99 I spent on it and if I wanted to maintain a Windows machine for it to sync to it'd be good enough, as is, it's likely to be replaced by a 2nd hand iPhone later this year.


Desks with holes for inkpots were common where I was in school in Brooklyn, New York, until I was about eight years old (second grade here in the US). And I haven't thought of that in nearly a half-century!

We didn't have those desks in the schools I went to later, which had been built more recently, to accommodate the post-World War II baby boom.

Joe Haldeman uses a fountain pen for his first drafts. He's the only person I know who uses one.


"... the UK is more federal than the USA."

If by that you mean that the individual countries(?): England, Northern Ireland, Scotland(?), and Wales have more autonomy than US states, then I find that believable.


Levenger sells fancy ballpoint and fountain pens with stylus nibs on the reverse end.


No, that's not it, though there it is partially true for Scotland (e.g. law), and very much so for the Isle of Man, each of the Channel islands, Gibraltar and other places that are part of the UK in some senses but not others. Even Berwick-upon-Tweed, Cornwall (the oldest kingdom in the UK) and the Isles of Scilly have a few (now mainly historical) 'constitutional' oddities.


Seconded here. See if you can find an old East German Zeiss binocular microscope somewhere; these are built like tanks and the optics are actually really rather good. I used one of these for much of my PhD work (plant parasitic nematodes, sex life thereof) and never had any problems at all. Granted the optics weren't as good as the eye-wateringly expensive Wild binocular scopes I used when based at Rothamsted Research, but the Zeiss microscope was about a tenth of the price.

On this theme, if you ever need a cooled light source but don't like LEDs or the price of fibre optic sources, then a bog-standard tungsten filament microscope light can be shone through a round-bottomed flask of water, which will both focus the visible light and remove the infra red component (which prevents you cooking whatever microscope beastie you happen to be observing at the time).


Yep! For example it recently came to public attention that Prince Charles -- in his capacity as Duke of Cornwall -- is exempt from the Nuclear Explosions (Prohibition and Inspections) Act (1998). Anyone else detonating a nuke on British soil is committing an offence carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment -- but the Duke of Cornwall has a get-out-of-jail-free card.

(Yes, this piece of obscure trivia is going to show up in a future Laundry Files novel ...)


Right.. but with all the bandwidth we have - I still don't understand why anyone would watch a bloody movie on a mobile phone, there's *no* excuse.



Ten to fifteen years ago, the std. was seven passes. dban (*wonderful* F/OSS program) lets you choose (US milspec) 5220.22-M, seven passes alternating with random at the end. (Well, at work, I put a few drives to be sanitzed in the old server that I saved just for that usage, start the program from the DVD, and walk away. A few hours, a few days, who cares, they're unreadable.

I understand, with modern storage technology, one is actually good enough, though at work, when I have to sign my name that I certify the drive in that system was sanitized, it's seven passes, or put in a deGaussed on. For a single file... in linux, there's the shred command.

mark "more than you wanted to know"


What do you mean when you say the UK is more federated than the US, then?


Sorry, "federal," not "federated."


Look at the, er, constitutional, legal and economic positions of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands (don't forget Sark). Wikipedia contains enough to baffle most people, and the following pages may help in that:

Also, remember that, in common speech, "United Kingdom" is commonly used as shorthand for the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Channel Islands and Isle of Man". The official term is "British Islands", but that I have never seen that used in normal speech or writing.


Further to Elderly Cynic's #194, and this is not intended so much to help as to illustrate why everyone, even UK citizens, are confused, level 1 regions (C to M) have some degree of autonomy for setting policy in a number of areas of development and social policy, but not in tax raising!


Cool! When mine is ready for testing I shall be sure to tap up t'other Charlie to press the button.


Ummmm ... thanks, guys? :)

My mind just skipped to a possible AskReddit post, which I then submitted.


In other words, if you aren't confused, you haven't been paying attention. A.P. Herbert - thou shouldst be living at this hour!


When I was decommissioning server drives for a major bank the "shred" command was interpreted as "take these drives to the shredding machine", a large mechanical shredder powered by a hydraulic motor. The port for the drives had large electromagnets on either side of the slot too, just in case. DBAN is for amateurs and dilettantes.

We also shredded the server RAM -- some folks reckon that's overkill, our bosses wouldn't say exactly why they wanted it done.


There was a time when we started "shredding" hard drives by dismantling them, then cutting up the platters with a gas axe. and then putting the bits in an acid bath! After getting them out of that and washing them, we folded them up with a 16lb sledgehammer!


"... in common speech, "United Kingdom" is commonly used as shorthand for the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Channel Islands and Isle of Man". The official term is "British Islands"..."

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island is abbreviated to "United Kingdom". Mention of Channel Islands and the Isle of Man occurs in certain places such as treaties where the full name of the UK is present, and they are appended because they are Crown Dependencies but they are not part of the United Kingdom. They are, however, part of the British Isles which is the term for the archipelago or island group comprising Britain and Ireland and a great many smaller islands. I am not aware of the term "British Islands" being used.

Great Britain is an alternative name for the island of Britain, and it is so called to distinguish it from -- if we ignore Ptolemy -- Brittany, France, back when both were claimed by the same crown; Brittania major vs Britannia minor (from that early writer of horrible histories, Geoffrey of Monmouth).


Also remember that, when Pretty Boy Dave spouts foreign policy and says "the United Kingdom", he is actually speaking on behalf of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Channel Islands, Isle of Man and Overseas Territories. Wikipedia (and you) are describing the formal terminology, but the informal ones are less consistent.


A bit rude of me to comment without offering my list of 2015 toys. We replaced a 1989 Panasonic television (our only television) with a Samsung UE40JU6400 LED 4K Ultra HD smart TV, 40" and, as one does, a week later we bought a Samsung HW-J550 Wireless SoundBar with Separate Subwoofer to get a similar sound quality to the old unit. We'd been holding out for a long time because the Panasonic still worked, and my theory was that if we wait we'd get a better tv than if we jump too early. Decades passed, my eyesight got poorer...

I'm moving from a simple phone to a Sony Xperia Z3. Dunno how that'll work out; it's a very recent move.

The ancient hi fi setup has been replaced by some smart kit which is so delightful we're listening to much more music (parts of the old kit were from the 1970s). Richer Sounds + Marantz (i.e. I can't remember and I can't be bothered to go over and look, but if anyone has an interest in low- to mid-level systems I will).

I have bought a second Think Outside iGO STOWAWAY Bluetooth folding Keyboard on ebay for a pittance. I got the first one for a tenner on ebay a few years ago. I really like it. It's tiny. It's so sweet. It has a stand for my tablet. When the battery case cover broke on the old one I decided I didn't want anything new (I already have a Microsoft Wedge for when I want a more substantial bluetooth keyboard) so I got a direct replacement.

I used to use a Ki Performance armband but as they are no longer around (after Bodymedia was bought by Jawbone) I got a Fitbit Surge in July. I am one of the people who gets the terrible Fitbit Surge rash which looks like a burn. I'm now trying all the recommended careful measures and increased washing of it and me to see if I can manage to wear it or whether it needs to be destroyed with a big mallet. I really miss my Ki Performance armband.


RAM sticks include an EEPROM which stores the timing parameters and stuff. With suitable software you could probably hide an encryption key in the spare space.

Dynamic RAM does not entirely lose its data when switched off. Enough charge can remain in the cells that specialist equipment can still recover a lot of the data even weeks later in some cases.


The suggestion I read online somewhere was that DRAM capacitor structure is affected by the long-term presence or absence of charge indicating a zero or a one. Data held in RAM could be quite persistent, especially in servers with read-mostly database operations and the like and it was theoretically possible to "read" the most likely long-duration contents of sections of RAM using exotic devices like tunnelling electron microscopes etc. This was speculation only, and by the time the servers were being decommissioned the RAM was pretty much useless anyway being low-capacity and usually a technology-generation back from bleeding-edge (DDR going out, DDR2 going in with the new servers). Time to die.


After reading the linked article I can understand why they want everything shredded down to dust. In a typical MacBook Air you would have a CPU with firmware that might be able to be changed for the keyboard, track pad, display processor, disk storage systems, USB port controllers, TB port controller, power management, battery, memory controls, bus operations, and likely a few I haven't thought of. And likely all of those have a way to be accessed so that an update can be applied if needed after manufacturing.


- dropcam: very nice internet cameras, overpriced

I used to think such. When I needed to get a camera that could be used to monitor the apartment with my mother in law for when she was alone I did a few hours of research and went and bought a couple of units from Frys. Wanted to be able to have some cloud recording that could be downloaded if needed, speaker and mic for communications if needed, Mac, iOS, Android support, low light, wifi, easy to power, etc... Lots of choices but they all seemed to use the same basic common hardware and software. Spent 4+ hours trying to deal with setting them up. 3 or more resets back to factory defaults. I realized my time was worth more than this. So I went out and bought a Drop Cam. (Now labeled as Nest). From unboxing it to everything up and running was at most 15 minutes. Boxed the other stuff back up and returned it to Frys.

I'll pay extra for that ease of setup and use.

Plus it's a great camera. Very wide field. Night mode works great in near total darkness with just a bit of fuzziness compared to lighted. With lighting color and clarity is great. I can literally watch and listen to a 48" TV from 30' away.


New toys for 2015.

I've been wanting a remote control for my portable computer for over 10 years. This year I got one. It's called an Apple watch. :)

Now I get to keep my phone ringer off most of the time and have things set so I only get bothered by important stuff and can leave my iPhone on the desk or in a pocket most of the time. And since I'm not pulling out my phone for every vibration or chirp I bought the 6S+ so I could read more things on it. And now my iPad Mini is mostly left at home.

Say what you will about Apple and costs but the integrated ecosystem does make things smoother. Much smoother.

Also a couple of Tivo Minis which allowed me to cut monthly costs.

Harking to the comments of some others I'd really like someone to either succeed with an open design for elderly care/home automation setups (and sorry but unless they are hiding under a rock they are none out there yet) or someone to pull and Apple and come out with a closed system that just works. I want to be able to monitor/control things from a SINGLE app or web site from whatever computer I have at hand. I want water detectors, temperature monitoring, speaker phone intercom like ability, motion monitoring (not an alarm), doorbell entry cameras where I can unlock the door or give a temp code to someone, I've fallen and can't get up when tries to reach me before calling 911, etc... All of these bits exist in one form or another but as an integrated whole, not even close.

Bonus give me the way to disable the stove (gas or electric) and other such appliances without throwing breakers or gas valves by hand. Sure I could build a contactor operated by a widget (raspberry Pi?) but I'm not sure I want to start a company at this point.


[The Matias Tactile Pro] uses Cherry buckling-spring keyswitches, so feels somewhere between the IBM Model M and the old-school Apple keyboards.

Um... no. IBM Model Ms use a buckling spring design. Cherry MX switches use a different mechanism entirely involving leaf springs and carefully shaped key stems (more than you ever wanted to know about the kind of Cherry MX switches, the brown stemmed version, here: including a nice animation of how it works). However, The Matias Tactile Pro doesn't use Cherry switches either, it uses Matias's own variant of the ALPS keyswitch – These feel pretty good – not as nice as Cherry Browns for my money, but far from unpleasant. The good people of are using these switches for their Model 01.


BTW, the text blade looks splendid (and inexpensive enough that I seem to have ordered one); I may well be nicking some of their chording ideas for myself if I start hacking on my keyboard firmware again.


"After reading the linked article I can understand why they want everything shredded down to dust."

It depends on what and who you are defending against. For most people and commercial corporations, a hatchet through the hard disk and a hammer on the proms is ample.


My electricity supplier recently insisted on visiting me to try to fit a "smart" meter. The house is a little over a century old, with a hill rising to the back of it. The electricity meter is low to the ground, at the back of the property.

When the two intrepid techies visited, they discovered that the wooden board to which the meter was attached had provided a wonderful meal for woodworm over the years, and would need to be replaced. They also discovered that although there was usable mobile connectivity at human head height in that room, there was absolutely no signal at the floor level; eighteen inches of Pennine sandstone wall appears to provide very good EM shielding.

I am now awaiting developments with interest.

Given the general expected incompetence of large companies, I expect that the wooden board replacement and the meter replacement will take two visits, possibly more as it is highly likely that the first visit that determined that the smart meter wouldn't work will not be believed by the company themselves.


Now THERE's an idea ...
Even if you are forced to accept a "smart" meter ... just replicate the original conditions - by shielding the thing in a grounded Faraday cage.
And await developments, as they say.
I'm assuming that these meters continue to work as a "normal" meter, even if there's no "radio" signal.


I have a gas meter. They're supposed to be swapped out every 10 years "due to ageing". (Real reason: to stop householders messing with the meter. Supplementary note: I do not hold with messing with gas or electricity meters -- that shit's dangerous.)

Well, about five years the gasco kept sending me change appointments: "our engineers will call on ..." to replace my meter. Except they sent them typically at 1-2 weeks' notice, during a period when I was typically making 6-8 trips away from home per year lasting up to a month each -- they managed to book my replacement sessions three times running during lengthy overseas trips while I was already away. No, I don't believe in giving them my email address, and no, I am not going to phone a premium rate phone number for their convenience: they can communicate on paper so I've got a record trail.

Finally they sent an engineer while I was actually at home. Who took one look at my existing meter and said, "eh, that pipe's so old our new meters won't fit it without an adapter I don't have. I'll have to book someone to follow it up. We'll be in touch."

Needless to say, that was the last I heard of the matter.

My electricity meter is similarly antiquated. The previous owner's dad rewired the flat himself when he renovated it in the early 1970s. (On the other hand, said previous owner's dad was a licensed electrician by trade and didn't cut corners on his family home.)


A Faraday cage is obviously a help, but it doesn't stop signals going up and down the supply cable, or into the house wiring and thence as radiation. And they may well not work if shielded, because my understanding is that they are reconfigured and measured via the Internet.


Now we're over 200 comments in and Feorag isn't reading I can confess to one other gadget I tried this year and didn't love: the Microsoft Surface 3. I bought one when Scrivener for iOS slipped ever further over the horizon because the allure of a tablet that could run Scrivener was so strong ...

TL:DR; Microsoft's hardware design quality isn't perfect but it's head and shoulders better than their software -- they make good kit. The Surface 3 has a couple of rough edges: it charges over micro-USB at a non-standard high current draw (so most USB chargers can't drive it: Anker's are an exception), uses a mini-Displayport for video output that is annoyingly close to the micro-USB power port and that has a rep for people jamming their power cable into and breaking ... but if you want a portable 1Kg writing device that's also a tablet and you aren't a committed Mac World person then this is a really nice piece of kit.

Alas, it came running Windows 8.1. I upgraded to Windows 10, tightened up security to get rid of most of the adware cruft, and got my usual allergic reaction to Windows. More importantly, another rough software edge came to light. I use Dropbox a lot and the Surface 3 comes with only 128Gb of SSD, plus a micro-SDHC card slot. I shoved a 128G card in the slot, tried to point Dropbox for Windows at the card ... and discovered that Dropbox refuses to run on removable media, and Windows 10 makes it really hard to fool the OS into thinking that an SD card or similar is non-removable (even if the plan was to wedge it permanently in place with a blob of sugru).

Plan B was a forced Linux upgrade. Foiled because the Surface 3 (not the Surface 3 Pro) uses an Atom chipset with a slightly customized Intel i915 graphics chip. However, a kernel patch supporting the Surface 3 chipset has just shown up in the past week, and once it's fully integrated into Ubuntu or Mint I will apply myself to seeing if the Surface 3 can be turned into a decent Linux portable.

(I have now got the pi-top working, and ... let's just say it's for enthusiasts only. The keyboard feels like a throwback to the early 1980s, it's impossible to type a pipe symbol "|" without figuring out how to remap it -- this is on an obligate linux machine designed as a learning platform for kids! -- and pi-top's own software seems determined to send me on a fishing expedition to Paypal if I want to install anything without diving into the Debian package manager command line. On the other hand, it's got so much free space under the hood that there's room for a four-port USB hub to live inside, driving a range of bluetooth and storage dongles, so there's that.)


I've been toying with Hackintoshing the Surface 2. I don't think it would work with your copyedit markup use case due to the smaller form factor but it appears to be almost a perfect hackintosh.
In theory you should be able to run Windows 8 or 10 as a Fusion or Parallels VM (which I highly recommend btw) and get the perfect combo. Good MS Pen/OCR support + Appley goodness for everything else.

Only thing that's stopped me is it would mean dropping ~£400 on a 'fun' project, and the OSX Kernel they used appears to have deadended at Mavericks which is getting a bit long in the tooth and has chalked up a few nasty vunerablilities.

My wife is a lawyer and has a similar mark up use case to yours giving me the excuse to 'experiment'.


I have a strong aversion to installing anything that isn't handled by the Debian package management system. It's the sort of thing that works fine at the time but bites you in the arse, with some weird incompatibility that makes no apparent sense, after several software upgrades and a couple of years during which you've forgotten what you did in the first place.

But I rarely find I want to install anything non-trivial for which there isn't a Debian package, even if it isn't in the Debian repositories; most people these days seem to have cottoned on to the problems with bypassing the package management system and provide their wares in .deb format as well as .rpm and .tar.gz.


Faraday cages aren't all they're cracked up to be... There is a tale of some chaps installing one in a room at GCHQ, entertaining themselves as they worked by means of the usual workman's battered radio. Come the completion of the job, one of them picks up the radio and says "This shouldn't be working, should it..." But it was.

Signals travelling via the wires can be attenuated by series inductance (ferrite cores clamped around the cable) and shunt capacitance, but again ensuring a complete block is easier said than done.

Tempesting stuff is really bloody hard and even the military/security establishment frequently fall over on it.

Jamming the signal, on the other hand, may well be a lot easier. I have a very small Tesla coil; it will light up discharge lamps held near it, but it is far too weedy to do the big sparks and streamers thing. It does, however, radiate enough interference that when I switch it on my wired broadband internet connection goes down.


"Jamming the signal, on the other hand, may well be a lot easier."

If I recall, that carries a prison sentence :-) More seriously, I am pretty sure that the killer is that many or most smart meters won't work at all if they don't have a connection back to their home base. "Smart meters .... They can also communicate directly with your energy supplier which means that no one will need to come and read your meter."


Did these people miss the bits where not everyone can receive one or more of a landline telephone, a cellular telephone signal, and a broadcast television signal?


I haven't looked into the area closely, but I assume so. It wouldn't be the first time that legal requirements have been imposed that could not actually be delivered.


Nobody reads my meter anyway... PAYG :)

What gets me about sites like that is the utterly daft list of things that they claim are "benefits to the consumer" none of which are in any way new. "See your energy consumption in real time" - always have been able to - as a kid I used to like watching the wheel going round. "Only pay for energy you actually use" - if that wasn't the case already I'd want to know the reason why...


And your previous:
Rolling out 53 million gas and electricity meters to all homes and small businesses in Great Britain by the end of 2020
Well, I'm not having one in my house & they can stick it.

Thanks for the hints folks - so I need to not only box the meter in a grounded cage, I need to wrap a large ferrite core round my main feed-line - which might be a little tricky .....

Jamming is only illegal (IIRC) if it jams other people's signals, so having an internal low-power jammer, that has a limited range would probably be OK.
Given other constraints though, probably not worth it ....


I always end up getting to these threads after the strange attractor threshold has been breached, but still here are the year's shinies for me:

A Nexus 9 to fill the 'mooching around the house idly browsing stuff' niche and stream stuff to the dongle in the TV (actually I got this at the tail end of '14, but it's close enough I reckon - especially as it took a few weeks for the order to get fulfilled). This pretty much instantly usurped the first generation iPad that is sitting, neglected, on the coffee table as I type - stranded by Apple's ugrade-or-die policy.

A second Sonos speaker for the living room (this was a birthday present for my wife, supplementing an earlier present which supplied the first Sonos speaker in the kitchen).

I finally bit the smartphone bullet and traded in my ancient Nokia for a One+ Two that I bought free and clear and have combined with a barebones EE contract. I'm not a natural smartphone bunny (hence the paleolithic Nokia in 2015) and I'm still getting to grips with this but it's a nice little device and, as another android platform, it complements the Nexus. I've just recently (ie run up to Xmas) got a podcatcher for it so I can listen to stuff when I'm commuting.

Some Sennheiser earbuds to use with the phone to listen to the podcasts. They're nothing special - I picked an entry level price point in case my ears didn't like them and they do the job well enough (my use case is effectively talk radio so they don't need to do much).

Does double-glazing count? We got all bar one of the sash windows in our late-victorian semi replaced with double-glazed versions this summer (the one hold-out had some original coloured glass we didn't want to lose, so we installed a secondary pane for that one).

Finally if we are extending our time window into the first week of the new year, then there are scaffolders working outside right now, prepping for the 2.6 kWp of solar PV to be installed tomorrow.



Sonos: I don't do Sonos because the Apple ecosystem gives me an alternative. Thick stone walls mean I have a handful of Airport Express wifi blocks plugged in around the place; add a Cambridge Audio amp and a pair of compact speakers in any room that needs audio and you've got an Apple style Sonos-like network -- iTunes library on my desktop Mac streaming to every room that needs it, remote control via my phone or ipad.

(It's a case of me already having the infrastructure so not needing to install a second, parallel system just to do streaming music.)

I confess I really like the design of the Google Pixel C, but it runs Android rather than ChromeOS and reviewers I trust suggest it doesn't really make good use of the hardware -- Android just ain't really ready as a large tablet system. I suspect it was intended for the trailed ChromeOS/Android convergence, at which point it'd be a flagship machine, but that hasn't happened yet and I'm not going to blow £400+ on a machine that can't even do side-by-side app multitasking (hint: iOS 9 is ahead of Android there).


You are aware that PAYG meters typically charge around 50% more than the same company's standard tariff? (Around 16p per unit, rather than 10-11p, and the daily standing charge is usually increased by the same proportion. And yes, PAYG meters implement a daily standing charge.) Depending on how much power you use, you may regard that as fair exchange, of course, but it's certainly a cost worth bearing in mind.


Hmm, that Pixel C is a pretty looking machine, and I do find the very high resolution screens alleviate my poor eyesight somewhat — on my latest phone I've dropped down from a 6.4" to a 5.7" screen, but the jump from 1920x1080 Full HD to 2560x1440 WQHD leaves it slightly more readable despite the smaller screen.


I put our iTunes libraries on our NAS box; which also has a TwonkyMedia server, pointed at them. Post-Xmas, the boys have a SONOS:1 and an old (SIM-removed) iPhone 4 as a controller.

It all works just fine, without the need to run separate amps / speakers / etc...

...granted, there was a certain amount of fiddling when I started trying to move from a single shared iTunes music library accessed from our Windows box, to allowing the kids to manage their own music and iPods from the iMac we bought as a homework desktop...


"Sonos: I don't do Sonos because the Apple ecosystem gives me an alternative."

Heh, I had an Airport gizmo hooked up to our old amp as an early experiment in music streaming and picked Sonos precisely to get away from the Apple ecosystem (specifically iTunes - which I have installed and ragequit from at least three times in the last few years; mean time to ragequit ~36 hours).

I still have the iTunes library structure set up on the NAS (largely thanks to the presence of an aged iPad in the house) but these days I use MediaMonkey to rip music files and do the organisational/tagging side of library management.



This has the potential to be amusing.

Way back in the year of Horiblosity that was 2015 ..a true Anus Horribleness if ever their was one .. I decided to improve my mood .. in between various Deaths and Disasters .. by refreshing my Homes entertainment systems.

And so it was that my previous TV panel ..a Pioneer ..

was replaced with a Sony .. yes I know SONY Masters of EVIL! But wot can you do? Picture Quality in 4K and so forth.

And the installers moved the Old And Tired TV up to my bedroom where it hasn't been used , but Hey ..this is traditional isn't it? I mean old Stuff is supposed to be moved to the next bedroom in line?

At the same time my old Denon AV amplifier got given to a Charity Shop and a new Denon Amp replaced it on acount of it having a WI FI connection that locked into a Humax Satellite Receiver ..that replaced my old Humax on account of ..WI FI connection ..and all of that locked into my new BT Fiber Optic Cable Hub and so this gives anyone who is interested in NEW Musical Sources of Entertainment a new source of the Same ...

Don't dare lock on to any of Caterina Dimonds ..sorry if misspelled but must maintain momentum or I will never tap the END key .. 'recommendations as linked to MUSIC in her posts.

Anyway most of my STUFF is very firmly in the entertainment arena though I have kept up to date on my Homes PC ..

Already long out of date as is always the case with IT systems no matter how carefully they are chosen.

I didn't buy a New Key Board since , after I had been Soundly Criticized by my LadyFriend, thus .." WHY HAVE You Bought this THING!! See it make my hands point OUTward .. and I don't care if it is Wire Less and also " Ergonomic " ... "..and so forth at which point I realized that I was trying to avoid having anything that reminded me of WORK before I did retire early .. that retirement mostly because I could you see.

Anyway, once I had realized that ... I started shopping for an IBM Model M ..

Of which I had, er, several at Work ..just in Case ..well there was my Desk Machine and also the Spare in My Spares Cupboard and also the Spare, Spare in my Secure Store ...

There's a test report Somewhere on U tube ..? ..?

Though, in fairness, if I had had that pistol at the time I would have been tempted.

No, not there involves a Melon? Now where did I ..ah YES! There it is ...

Though This is a more accurate representation ...

I bought mine from an E Bay auction and at the same time ordered a Clicky Keyboard from The US of A .. ? no, not there ..Here ..

and They apologized for not supplying it instantly!

" Thank you for your order. We do not stock UK English models;
consequently, your keyboard will need to be manufactured.. We have not
charged your credit card and will not do so until the order ships. You
will be sent an email at the time of shipment with the FedEx tracking
number. Once the order ships, you should receive in 2 - 3 days. Your
order should ship next week. Please let me know if you have other
questions or need more information. "

Bloody HELL! Ah well, they are US of American and so lack practice in Despising Customers who have the temerity to want to Buy something ..we in the UK know better than to do this.

In the mean time my winning bid for the UK model IBM E Bay auction turned up and needed only a little cleaning to be Good as New .. paper label on back of key board ? " manufactured in the United Kingdom "..actually in Scotland .. 1988 ..just to think! 1988 ..wot were you doing in 1988 and have you worn as well as the keyboard that I'm typing on now?

Made in Scotland From Girders ?

The American Keyboard duly arrived and is The Spare fallback keyboard ... even though it is prettier than the Used UK model and does have a USB connector somehow it just isn't the same to the touch.


Oh ..COME ON Charlie! I just can't believe that you haven't done this following web search ...

Google " sporran cat " ..


Mind you the search has its deficiencies in as much as I have entirely FAILED to find a Sporran that is designed to hold an IBM Model M ... 1988 Scottish Model for preference.


Yes, you're about right for the price per kWh, although I do not have a standing charge. (That depends on individual tariffs.) But I use very little power day-to-day. (Lights, fridge, computer. The only thing that really chews through the juice is making hot water, so I wash in cold water most of the time.) So that's OK; and it's debt-proof, and keeps the effusion of money firmly under my direct control, for which reason PAYG is my preferred option for every situation where it's available.


"...somehow it just isn't the same to the touch."

Ah, that is most useful to know. If my own Model M died on me I would be devastated, and I have long considered getting one of the modern versions as a spare, but I have always been somewhat unsure as to whether or not they really were exactly the same as the originals. Henceforth I shall direct my desultory searches towards second-hand originals.


I actually managed to go over the list today, and being a not-Mac-please person still found it useful enough to make some notes. Thanks for sharing, it's really difficult nowadays to get honest and personal opinions on hardware.

And if I were obliged to pitch in to the gizmo list... nothing breath-taking, but buying Chromecast was most discoverish. Doesn't support as many formats as I would like but with a bit of apps-on-an-actual-computer it does live up to the "turn anything with HDMI input into a media centre".

(also I find the login-for-comments tedious. I did comment here before... oh well. And definitely too-many-hyphens-day.)


I gave up the leading edge years ago. I'm pretty happy sitting 2-4 years behind. So I've got nothing to contribute that people won't think "that old thing???"

However, I just bought a 2014 Zero DS motorcycle (saving thousands and thousands off the much better 2016 bike). While it's no longer cutting edge, not many people have them so maybe it qualifies.

It is to personal transport what the TV/netflix is to entertainment. Petrol bikes are a constant, expensive trip to a specialist shop. Just like cinema. In the same way that watching movies at home is easier that going to the cinema, no trips to the petrol station. No trips to the dealer. No afternoons spent up to the elbows in oil and tools. Motorcycling ceases to be an "event" and is simply part of your life. You don't need a special room attached to the house to store it. It can come in the house like any other well behaved appliance because it won't take a leak on the floor. It's like switching from a wood stove where you have to cut your own wood, split it, stack it, dry it, get the fire going etc, to an electric range. Turn it on and start cooking.


Not too very much more range and a bit more carrying capacity would make me wonder about overcoming my fear of motorcycles.

(It's not a rational fear; I bicycle in traffic. But there was this time in the emergency room with a fellow student who was too drunk to stand up and the wait was mostly due to someone who had managed to grind their ankle bones way down with a motorcycle. Left a lasting impression.)


I'm also on my second ScanSnap, and it's awesome. Overkill for what I use it for, but still a lot less pain than trying to scan paper bills and such with a flatbed.


The best disk-shredding protocol I've seen—note that those are classified hard drives. Well, were classified hard drives.


Most fun disc shredding, but it did leave bits available. I was contracting to the RAN for a while. They would over write the drives. Then they'd pile them up on a hard surface. A tracked vehicle would then drive up on top and start to circle. A few minutes of that would reduce them to coin sized chips or smaller. They'd be swept into three piles. Those three piles would be put in three buckets. Three boats would be given one bucket each. One sailed East, one North East, one South East. After a few hours sailing they'd start spooning the chips overboard. QM says you can't destroy information, but the Navy do like to scramble the hell out of it.


"there's a lot of data but we can't access it "

You can. So few people do however that it's very very very unlikely the person you speak to will have ever heard of it.

If you're outside Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong you don't have a smart meter though you probably think you do because you have blinkenlights and you've heard all the bullshit that floats around about these things. You'll probably have an EM1000.

If you have a smart meter, you can call your retailer and ask for "Half Hourly Data". That keyphrase may get you to the data you want. If you have an electronic display meter you may be able to have a data extraction done. It used to be free from Country Energy. Now with all the cost cutting that has happened because the NSW government is trying to hide the fact that the price doubling comes from selling the retail arm to their mates, I'd guess there's a fee.


As a motorcycle owner myself I have to say I don't recognise any of that as a consequence of the type of power unit.

Reasons for not keeping it in the house are: lugging the sheer weight of the thing over the sill of the front door; can't get the handlebars through the front door, especially while trying to lift the front end in the air to get it over the sill; even if I did get it inside, I would have to climb over the top of it to get into the kitchen; and I wouldn't have room to open and close the kitchen door, so wouldn't be able to shut the cat in there while I sleep (which is necessary to make sure she doesn't fuck up my stuff while I can't stop her).

I don't give two hoots about the possibility of oil drips on the floor, and in any case the volume of such is a good order of magnitude less than the volume of black water that drips off it after riding in the wet, which would still drip off it and still be just as black regardless of power unit type.

Avoiding constant mechanical work and expensive parts purchases is simply a matter of selecting a bike which is mechanically reliable and for which parts are cheap. Small capacity bikes which are designed as basic transport rather than as high speed toys are usually the kind of thing where you can ignore the internals of the engine nearly all the time, especially Japanese ones. Same as with cars where a Nissan Micra is a very different proposition from a Maserati.

And by far the biggest reason that a motorcycle journey is an "event" is the complete change of clothing it entails, since I do not habitually carry out everyday activities while encased head to toe in leather, nor while sufficiently well insulated to resist the loss of heat to cold, damp air moving at 60mph (nothing like that feeling of getting off the bike at the end of the ride and finding you can hardly walk because your muscles have frozen up). Again, this is independent of the type of power unit.


That's overkill. Why not just put the platters in an oven and heat them above the Curie temperature of their magnetic substrate for a couple of hours?


Reasons for not keeping it in the house are: lugging the sheer weight of the thing over the sill of the front door

Or, in my case, up four flights of stairs so it doesn't piss off the downstairs neighbours by blocking their access.

(Disclaimer: my wife's bicycle is bolted to the railing outside our own apartment door -- at the top of the stairs. But it's a pedal-pusher and she can humpf it up and down the stairs when she wants to ride it.)


Yeah, it is overkill, and all the NATO militaries seem to do something similar. I can't tell if it's got some common basis in fact, so that someone with the right gear and the right amount of stubborn can recover information from magnetic media despite what really ought to be a complete wipe, or if it's the ritual extremes of, for instance, nuclear weapon codes leaking out over general IT practices.

Used to be -- may still be -- a small business near Ottawa that did nothing but run a plasma arc furnace. Folks would show up with briefcases chained to their wrists, do paperwork, and stuff floppies in the furnace one by one. The (in the day) videotape of the floppies, serial number by serial number, going into the furnace is what went in the briefcase for the trip back.

I have no idea if that was in any way necessary, but it was thorough.


Now if they'd just give that a proper rapid charge capability (Chademo, CCS, or Zoe style rapid AC, any of which would give an 80% plus charge in about 10 minutes on the existing public infrastructure) I'd be all over it...


Or, if you don't trust the Curie effect, just go a bit hotter, and melt them.

Not only does it use far less fuel and effort, it's actually more secure. Coin sized chips scattered in the ocean could, if you wanted to put the effort in, be trawled up and read. Something that's been scrambled on an atomic scale, not so much...


First visit - great blog!

Security: If you don't grind up your chips and disks they can be reconstructed, but for most data a hammer is sufficient, or the microwave.

New kit: Regretable had to buy a new commuter car (I'm American don't we all commute). The Ford Fiesta is easier to interface my phone to than else. First over Bluetooth, then with a Microsoft download to my iPhone4, full interop.

Love the Rasberry, but looking at arduino for central control of home. Cell phone hardware is getting very cheap for the power if you drop back a generation or two.

Got to replace evaporative air conditioning unit (desert dweller) before summer, but staring at solar PV incentives for the future.

Home computing: want a server class processing ( building a wargaming machine ) and finding that Dell server components that 5 years ago the company paid thousands for are cheap on ebay.

Examining opportunities ala Roku et al

Still frustrated with piles of music CDs and gap between internet radio and my stereo.

Really enjoy the American politics watching!
Frightening choices face my nation.


Quick question for the group mind here:

We're looking at moving to ebooks as textbooks. Cost is about the same over the lifetime of a textbook, with the advantage that we only need to license as many books as we have students in a given year (rather than buying for a peak year and having unused copies in a cupboard). Also a lot easier for the kids to carry around.

Downside is retention isn't as good for things read on a screen — but better than not reading anything because they didn't want to carry the big book around. (Or books — some of our kids have 4-5 kg of textbooks in a day's classes.)

That works for the kids with their own devices, which most have. But some students are on social assistance and don't have phones or tablets (or computers). I'm thinking that we could purchase cheap loaner tablets to function as e-readers for these students. The textbooks are formatted as PDF files, in colour.

I'm looking for something that can display PDF files. Wifi access would be useful (although we could side-load the files if we had to*). Battery life 5+ hours. Gaming capabilities: as poor as possible :-)

Anyone have an recommendations?

*And I can think of advantages to NOT having WiFi available as well, such as conserving batter life for reading textbooks rather than watching YouTube.


Anything Android has access to approximately a squillion first-rate free PDF viewers.

I'd look at giving the kids tablets, bureaucracy allowing. Previous-generation tablets are pretty cheap, and the inventory overhead and the basic problem that tablets are, like laptops, fragile things can be better addressed sometimes if replacement is known to be the user's problem, rather than the organization's.

At which point tablet selection is probably a function of finding out who will give you the best deal.


You know, when I was a wee sprog, the way it worked was: each class had a classroom. Each kid had a desk, with storage under the lid. You'd keep your books in your desk. Lessons would be taught by different teachers, but with the exception of classes that required special equipment (e.g. arts, crafts, sciences) they'd be taught in the same room and you'd have your text books in your desk.

So the only textbooks that would be hauled around by the kid would be the ones they had to take home for homework or bring back the next morning. No schlepping of huge backpacks between classrooms!


But to the question in hand: just about any Android or iOS tablet can display PDFs. You might want to buy a site license for a better-than-standard PDF reader app, preferably one that supports annotation. The real problem is that firstly, higher resolution displays give you better retention, secondly, for text books you really want a larger screen, and thirdly, you also need to have a charger/cable and some sort of soft case to prevent the screen getting all scratched up. (Kids are hard on tech toys.)

The cheapest option out there is the Kindle Fire 7", at $50/unit, but it's only a 7" screen and rather poor resolution.

Unfortunately, to get a decent screen at 9" or larger you're looking at something like a Google Nexus 9, a Google Pixel C (that's their top-end option), or an entry level iPad Air 2, or maybe a Samsung Galaxy Tab S. The Kindle Fire HD 10 or Fire HDX 8.9 are also decent options, but a bit proprietary. Of this lot, the Fire HD 10 is the cheapest at £169, with a 1280x800 display -- the others are generally highest resolution and more expensive, to the point where at the high end (iPad Air 2, Pixel C) we're getting into the same budget territory as a Microsoft Surface 3 or a real laptop.


When I was in high school, every teacher had their own room and you moved from room to room, but as we weren't allowed backpacks in the classrooms you only carried the books you needed for half a day's classes, leaving the rest in your locker.

Now, kids are allowed to bring backpacks into classrooms so either they tend to carry absolutely everything or (in some cases) everything but their books (so they have an excuse to go to their locker to get it, and chat to their friends along the way). In many cases their lockers are full of lawn chairs and other leisure equipment so they don't have room for textbooks!

In any case, our priority is going to be 'cheap' over 'ideal' — partly because of a limited budget, and partly because the better the device the higher the chance of it being stolen (or forcibly 'borrowed').

Two quick technical questions:

1) Can a Kindle Fire be side loaded by us (so we don't have to go through Amazon)?

2) Is there a way to set it up with an admin override password (or no password changes)? A returned/recovered device with a password we don't know is a useless device, and our chances of recovering the costs is low. (That's why we're looking at loaners, because these kids don't have money.) Seeing how many forget their network passwords every week, we'll need a way in or we'll have useless bricks soon enough…


The "students move between classes" model is hard to avoid once you have either options at GCSE level or setting. But when I was in secondary school (early 90s, UK) we had lockers, and three breaks when we had time to swap, so no need to carry more than you needed for two or at most three classes. About half my contemporaries seemed to have moved to the "carry everything" model, I never figured out whether it was fear of the consequences of forgetting a book or a workout technique.


"...the chance of it being stolen (or forcibly 'borrowed')."

Or flogged for a bit of extra pocket money.

Quite a few times round here I've been stopped in the street by kids trying to flog me phones (said kids being a bit young to be flogging weed yet). I would bet my arse that if they were handed out free electronic gadgets at school they would be flogging those as well. It would be assumed (probably correctly) that the buyers would know where they came from and wouldn't care, and if you locked them down to make them less attractive it would simply mean that some nerdy kid would be in clover unlocking them. It would also not be only the poor kids doing it.

Even without that I still think it's a bad idea, because trying to learn from a PDF is a significant arseache compared to using a real book. (If I find myself designing something with a complex and unfamiliar component I am quite likely to print out the relevant sections of the datasheet instead of referring to them on screen, even if it comes to several hundred pages.)


We shifted from static pupils to static teachers three years before O-level, driven not by specialisation but by streaming. Specialisation began the next year, but for O-level it basically meant just picking two subjects to drop, so it didn't reduce the book load much.

What did keep the book load under control was simply having a maximum of 7 single periods a day. Of those, at least one duple would be concatenated into one; at least one would be occupied by PE, art, music, or something else that didn't require books; at least one would require only a textbook of paperback novel size (before paperback novels decided to try for the domestic building materials market) and an exercise book; possibly two disjoint periods would be allocated for the same subject.

Backpacks were not all that common, although ex-army/RAF ones were reasonably popular; quite a lot of people just used variations on the sports bag or something between a briefcase and a suitcase. Nearly all the backpack people and probably a majority of the bag/case people would visit the lockers only once, on arrival at school, to prepare the contents of their bag for the day, and then carry every required book with them for the rest of the day.

As far as I'm aware nobody really noticed the weight; we just accepted that books are heavy (although some of the older bags showed signs of disintegration and repair). Also, when we didn't want to lug the bag around for the whole of break, we would dump it either in the room with the lockers or on the landing outside - so all the hassle we were saving was that of exchanging books between bag and locker. Nevertheless, that seems to have been enough for an awful lot of people to consider it the easiest option.


The choice is between ebooks or no books, I'm afraid.

And we're not handing out free tablets to every kid. We're looking at a few loaner tablets for a few kids in need. Most kids already have devices that are good enough (and better than we could afford).


Really? You said it'd cost much the same either way, and it seems to me that avoiding the introduction of new and unfamiliar problems (of the existence of which this discussion is evidence) would be desirable.


While I can't recommend them as such, never having done used them, the cheap tablets available through DealExtreme or Alibaba are apparently quite good for the money - and the money can be very small indeed.


Aaaargh, total proofreading failure. The pain, the agony, etc.


Cost is the same. However, new textbooks require all the money up-front, while ebooks are a yearly fee. We don't have the money for a course set of new textbooks, but we can afford the yearly license (approximately 10% of the textbook cost).


Our kids' school has just moved from a trial, optional, BYOD into a full compulsory BYOD scheme from secondary. They've taken all of their existing IT kit from the secondary school, and pushed it down into the primary department so that it's school-provided in primary.

The primary needs could be met by a just-over-£100 Tesco Hudl; in secondary, by a just-over-£200 netbook. Offhand and without looking, I think it was 1GB of RAM / 256GB of disk as a guidance minimum.

What pushed the prices up was the insurance deal; essentially, a premium that over three years, comes to about a quarter of the retail price - but guarantees replacements throughout.

In terms of packages, the Scottish Government has got a free license for most of Microsoft Office, for every kid in Scottish education. Meanwhile, the Google Docs / Drive / Classroom / Sheets / Slides stuff is excellent. No more "dog ate homework", no more "no, I don't have homework tonight" - all work is held in the cloud. I suggested that youngest (still just in primary) log in on my iPad to do some of his work, the unintended benefit was that we get all his assignments ping on our iPads when the teacher sets them...

The experience from the early-adopter schools is that the kids are rather careful with their kit - more so than you would expect - and any fears about "kids mugged for the laptops they're carrying" were (so far) unfounded - But give the Daily Express / Daily Heil time...



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on December 31, 2015 1:35 PM.

Repurposing Memory was the previous entry in this blog.

A world-building puzzler is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Search this blog