Category: Tech

Television

I grew up in a house that always had the TV on. My Mum knitted, professionally, and the TV was the back drop to that. As she was working, she preferred things that she maybe didn’t have to pay close attention to, so Saturday afternoon movies became a staple, as did cricket and Formula One, anything that didn’t need to be watched 100% of the time.

Of course I wasn’t knitting so I did sit (I don’t have the patience for such things) and watch these things, the movies, the sport, and have fond memories of sitting on the old round brown rug, resplendent with white Claddagh, as the screen flickered through lazy Saturday after lazy Saturday.

As I grew up, so TV took a lesser part of my life as I found more interesting ways to spend my time.

I’ve never been one for following the crowd and TV is a great example of this. I genuinely don’t now how some people can have watched every TV show they have, hour after hour after episode after episode. I’m as fond of a Netflix binge as anyone but they are few and far between, and so when people at work start talking about TV shows, invariably I haven’t seen it.

The quality of most regular TV is what puts me off, not the fact it’s popular (I’m not THAT contrary) and that’s before you get to all the political and ‘news’ shows that only add further weight to a vague conspiracy theory about how TV is really just the opiate of the masses or, as The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy put it, the drug of the nation.

T.V. is
The stomping ground for political candidates
Where bears in the woods
Are chased by Grecian Formula’d
Bald eagles
T.V. is mechanized politic’s
Remote control over the masses
Co-sponsored by environmentally safe gases
Watch for the PBS special
It’s the perpetuation of the two party system
Where image takes precedence over wisdom
Where sound bite politics are served to
The fastfood culture
Where straight teeth in your mouth
Are more important than the words
That come out of it
Race baiting is the way to get selected
Willie Horton or
Will he not get elected on…
Television, the drug of the Nation

It’s not that I don’t watch television – I’ve just finished watching the entire How I Met Your Mother from start to finish for the first time – more that these days, I struggle to pick something from the myriad of choices we have available to us now.

And it’s only getting worse. Netflix set the standards but pretty soon after that Amazon pitched in (I’m currently watching The Boys there), and HBO, Disney, and BritBox all want a piece of the pie too.

It’s a vast change since my childhood days of three channels, and a big tube box with buttons and you had to get up out of your seat if you wanted to change the channel.

And what’s all that choice doing to my television experience? Diminishing it.

For a few years I hardly watched any regular TV. So much so that I considered giving up the TV License we pay in the UK as I was only watching streamed movies. I was fed up channel surfing and watching one or two episodes of a show that just didn’t have the production values I like and more often than not I ended up re-watching one particular TV show which, for me, is up there as the best that has ever been made (the first 4 seasons at least).

I can’t remember when I first stumbled across The West Wing, it certainly wasn’t my parents influence but I think my friend Susan was the first to clue me in. She had a bad illness for several months which kept her housebound so, to have something to talk about, we’d watch TV shows separately and discuss them. She foisted a boxset on me once and, since then, I’ve watched it start to finish about six times.

For me it’s the writing, the words and the way they flow from character to character that dragged me in, not to mention the stellar cast and high production values. I’ve not long finished listening to the podcast that, belatedly, accompanied the series – The West Wing Weekly – which featured one of the actors who joined the show in the latter years. He, Joshua Malina, had worked on other TV shows before, but hearing him talk about the way the show was made and how it was more like a theatre/movie production than the usual weekly TV show approach (quality over quantity) really solidified, for me, the reason I adore this show so much.

If you haven’t watched it, consider this a recommendation. Take the first few episodes at one go, it settles in by about episode three and just gets better and better from there. You will laugh, you will cry (the death of one character especially, every single time!) and alas, in our current political climate, you too will wish for a President Bartlett to appear. It’s a soothing balm of a show, that places good over bad, right over wrong, with all the human frailties that go along with that.

As the autumn nights head for winter, the comfort of a sofa and a blanket and familiar TV show is beckoning again. Maybe it’s time for viewing number seven…

Technology

10 PRINT "Hello World!"

I can’t remember if it was a birthday present or a present from Santa, or if it was from an Aunt or Uncle, but I can still remember the first time I used it and the mild awe I experienced when I got it working.

The present was an electronics starter kit; a little circuit board with LEDs, switches, a speaker and other bits and bobs on it, and lots of little wires and spring connectors so you could wire up circuits and I can still remember the fun it was to create something like that, something magic. Push a switch here, and an LED lights up over there. It came with a set of instructions for basic circuits, and from that you could configure your own. I’m pretty sure I tried to wire up my own burglar alarm for my bedroom door one time only to realise that to set it up I had to be inside the room… bit of a limitation that.

The kit itself probably wasn’t the catalyst for my interest in technology but it certainly poured fuel on the fire and from a young age, encouraged by a father who had an entire garage full of things to experiment with and who remains to this day a huge gadget fan, my curious mind was quickly drawn to a world of electronics and switches, the wonder of electricity and the burgeoning world of home electronics and computers.

All of this ultimately led me through high school and a Higher Physics qualification, then on to a (short lived) college course in Electrical and Electronic Engineering where, in a nice little twist, I even made an actual PCB (printed circuit board) although this one didn’t have little spring connectors. I also managed, as part of my coursework, to blow a chip entirely in half, with the top layer flying off in a puff of smoke. Ahhh those heady days.

It wasn’t for me though.

Alongside that early interest in electronics was a growing interest in computers, fuelled entirely by my Dad who used to bring home these wonderous machines from the school he taught in. An Acorn BBC Series Microcomputer was my first exposure to such a thing, before the BBC Master, and a few years later an early Apple Mac II which still holds fond memories. It was the beginning of the personal computer age and soon all my friends had Sinclair ZX Spectrums, Commodore C64s, and the Amstrad CPC with its built in tape deck.

Things were pretty BASIC back then (pun clearly intended) yet it was still quite a revelation when, after spending a couple of hours manually typing lines of code, you ran your own program and could see it on the screen.

I missed out on Computer Software courses at school by a year, or my life would no doubt have been very different, but that early love of technology has been a constant throughout my life.

If you had told a 10 year old me that one day I’d stand in my living room, and say a few words out loud to have some lights come on, and some music starting to play, I’d have presumed you’d stolen the idea from a Dan Dare comic.

Of course all that technology comes with a price, one we weren’t really thinking about in the early days. Both the cost of hardware, with the incessant push to upgrade devices regularly for the latest greatest features, and as the internet zips forward and gives us ever greater sight of the murkier parts of life are brought into view and that too comes at a cost.

With millions of inter-connected devices, the idea that shining a light on all the bad things in the hope they’ll go away hasn’t played out. Instead it’s simply helped those with similar world views come together in increasingly monstrous ways. But, of course, that isn’t the fault of technology. There have always been people with dark views of the world, there has always been hatred, it’s just that much easier for it to coalesce online than ever before.

The flip side, obviously, is that those people who believe in love, equality, and want to make the world a better place for everyone, can also come together online, thanks to the wonderful technology we have available to us. It’s no surprise that there is a rise on demonstrations around the world, with technology driving the organisation and planning.

It’s a long way since my first experiences with technology, learning how to write lines of basic code, and computers aside, the leaps and bounds that all forms of technology have taken in the past three decades is astounding, and looking forward one wonders just how far we will be able to take things.

Until then…

GOTO 10

Apple iPhone 11

In conflict with new

I recycle, I have for many years. My partner is a lot better read on it though and I’ve learned a lot from her since we moved in together; I’m much more conscious of single use plastics et al these days and have started to question my entire habits of consumption. Quite simply, I buy too much stuff.

I’ve known this for a while and even though I’ve been a lot better at being mindful of new purchases it’s still a habit that I relax on too often. I have a drawer full of t-shirts – I could wear one a day for a month I reckon – yet have added a couple of new ones recently with the premise that ‘it’s ok because I’ll pass some of the older ones on to charity stores’. Which is good but missing the point entirely. I don’t NEED new t-shirts.

Just as I don’t NEED a new iPhone, my current one is just fine for what I use it for, yet…

I’m in the Apple upgrade programme and have the option to upgrade to the latest shiny new iPhone each year and so far I’ve done just that and justified it by, somewhat rightly, positioning an iPhone as more than just a smartphone as it’s the only camera I now have and with most year on year upgrades including improvements in photography (this year is no exception) it is entirely possible to reason my way into yet another upgrade.

Editors note: He has already upgraded, this post is really just a way of working through his angst.

I don’t NEED a new iPhone, I know this, I can rationalise that side of the argument very easily. The upgrade programme is essentially a finance option so if I choose NOT to upgrade and finishing the payments the handset is mine to keep for as long as I want.

I could also argue that in a couple of years the battery life will start to diminish on an exponential scale and will render my smartphone annoyingly dependent on having a 3rd party battery charger to hand as the battery gets worse and worse. I reckon 4 years is the longest it would remain ‘workable’ and that’s only because I work in an office and can keep my phone charging all day if I want, however the weekends would be fraught.

Perhaps THIS iPhone is the last one I get for a few years. Battery technology has come a long way in the last couple of years, with this model (iPhone 11 Pro) touted as having 4 hrs more than it’s predecessor and I’m presuming that means the slow decay of capacity is also slower (I’m not expert though, I should’ve probably have checked this out..). Improvements to the camera also are notable, so notable they spent most of the keynote presentation talking about them, and if the low light/dark mode is anything near as good as is suggested then it’ll be worth it for that alone.

So yes, I have ordered the upgrade and promised myself to double down elsewhere. The iPhone is a luxury item for sure but it is the one thing I use day in day out – there is a whole other post about those habits – and in a way it feels a little more acceptable to treat this differently to other purchases, a little different on the WANT vs NEED scale, somehow.

And perhaps this really will be the last time I do this.

Looking at the news I have to wonder if my mind might be focused on far more important things over the next year; Brexit and the current farce that is British Politics, the utter inhumanity and horror that Trump is unfolding around him on a global scale, and no doubt further global climate change implications will come to the fore. These will all come to bear on day to day decisions more and more and, I fear, such frivolities as ‘ohhh a new shiny iPhone’ will start to become more and more a thing of the past, a dinosaur relic, a tribute to my destructive consumption tendencies and some might say bring a level of karma to my hideous over-consumption of the past.

It’s a sad thought for sad and scary times but hey, at least I have a shiny new iPhone.

Oh.

lots of app icons

App Trends

It started with Evernote. When I first started using it I was delighted with such a simple, fast loading, feature rich note app but over time it ended up a slow, bloated product focused on ‘teams’ and ‘work’ (neither of which I needed).

The email app I use, Spark, appears to be headed the same way, adding ‘teams’ and ’email delegation’ to the list of features which is of no use to me for my personal email account.

And recently it seems Dropbox is headed that way too. When it was first launched it was a godsend, a very simple file/folder storage app that sync’d and integrated with many different applications. It did what it did brilliantly well and became very popular. Yet it too is now looking bloated and looking to focus on business use first and foremost.

I get it. All these apps start by solving a simple problem and then get stuck trying to evolve further and further. As their companies and revenues grow they look around for what else they can add, which is natural as they have to keep earning, they have employees to pay after all. Each of the above examples (there are more) all look to be headed the same way, adding more and more features and starting to alienate the users who got them there in the first place.

I’m an early adopter, I try lots of apps and if one sticks, great. If not I move on. But time and again I find myself using an app for a while only for it to evolve away from the core offering they started with and, given there are a few million apps around, there is always a competitor to take up the slack.

I ditched Evernote ages ago and after several other trials have landed back with the default Apple Notes app – I also have the secure S.Notes app but that’s primarily as a conduit for web entry at work.

I’ve tried to move away from Spark but until the Snooze features of other apps catch up I’m staying (but the time is coming… as it’s getting more and more bloated.

And now I’m looking at Dropbox versus iCloud. I use Dropbox purely for storing files that I want to access anywhere. I rarely share folders and as that functionality is coming to iCloud later this year anyway, it might be time to ditch Dropbox as well.

I’m sure this cycle will repeat. Apple are notoriously slow at updating their own apps which gives third parties time to innovate and leap ahead, but it looks like there could be a time when I’m back using Mail, Notes, and iCloud folders instead of third party apps. Which is exactly what Apple want, of course, but makes me sad that there doesn’t seem to be much room for small, simple apps, that do one or two things very well.

Such is the nature of the beast, and no doubt there will be another cycle soon. Already apps like Bear (note taking) are gaining ground by offering a superior, simple, notes application (alas these all seem to be headed into Markdown usage which I just don’t need/want), and with the last change from Dropbox, it too will like see other competitors (Box?) step up.

I guess this is the joy of being an early adopter, being at the start of these cycles is always a little exciting but man oh man do the ends suck.

Vinyl is dead, long live vinyl

How do you pronounce it? Vahyn-l? Vīnĭl?

The living room in my childhood home had a big wide bay window. Standing on either side of the windows were two tall white bookcases my Dad built. They had a deeper base section to house the record player and my parents combined record collection; my Mum was a screaming Beatles fan in her youth, my Dad tended towards folk, but both met in the middle ground of singer songwriters and rock bands.

My parents are both musical, Mum played the piano, Dad the guitar and banjo, both sang in choirs and my Dad still performs at the Royal Concert Hall. Music was a constant part of my upbringing and their record collection was a source of fascination and as I look back on music as part of my childhood it’s clear that it holds the key to my musical proclivities.

Somewhere in that collection was an album with an oddly hypnotic cover. I was around 9 or 10 years old when I came across it, around about the time I was starting to discover my own tastes. Top of the Pops was must-see TV, a radio a necessity, and later a tape deck so the Top 40 could be recorded and played over and over. Yet that album, and the subsequent discovery of other albums by this ‘old’ band called Queen (the joys of the local library music section), was one that would stick with me through the years. From the opening Arabic call it offers piano driven ballads, upbeat rock tracks and still one of my favourite Queen tracks of all time, Fat Bottomed Girls (ohhh those opening harmonies).

That said, music is always about fashion and 9 year old Gordon was doing his very best to ‘fit in’ although I always seemed to naturally veer a little off the beaten track. The first LP I bought was Adam & The Ants, Friend or Foe. It was 1982 and Goody Two Shoes was high in the charts. Yet it was the track A Man Called Marco that grabbed my ear, all minor keys, jangling guitar and in contrast to the new romantic pop the rest of the album offers it gave me an entirely ‘other’ musical landscape to explore.

For a while I collected LPs like everyone else until along came Compact Discs. Tiny silver discs you could smother in jam and they’d still play (no, they didn’t demonstrate that on Tomorrows World, take a look for yourself). My Dad has always been a bit of a tech gadget nut, the acorn didn’t fall all that far, and so we had a CD player pretty early on. The player came with a couple of discs as part of some promotion or another, one of which was Live at Marquee which featured a guitar shredding, monster riff of a track by some American dude called Jimi Hendrix who was singing about a Purple Haze and, whilst I didn’t understand what the heck he was going on about, I sure as hell knew that this noise was something I wanted more of. And I wanted it as loud as possible.

And then it was 1984. The year started with talk of Orwell and Big Brother and then along came a band I already knew, with a new album which gave me exactly some of the noise I was craving. Radio GaGa rightly got the headlines, but it was Hammer To Fall and Tear It Up that continued my path towards rock. Fast forward another few years and I’d rattled through early Iron Maiden, Saxon, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and the like, switching my allegiance between vinyl and CD depending on what I could get my hands on.

A few years later takes you to the moment when I walked into the kitchen to the sight of my Dad washing the dishes to the accompaniment of Appetite for Destruction (on cassette tap I should point out). All the kids at his school were talking about it so he thought he’d give it a listen. I quickly snaffled it for myself.

My own CD player soon arrived, a mini-stereo. Just in time for Rage Against the Machine, and whilst the first track I played on it was The Silencers Painted Moon, Killing in the Name Of, was the one that got the “turn that down” shout from downstairs… (I slammed my door and turned it up in protest).

A few years after that, Smells Like Teen Spirit posted on my bedroom wall and a re-introduction to vinyl at Hospital Radio Lennox. 1000 LPs and 4000-odd singles lined the shelves, with regular additions every week. A mixing desk, microphones, even broadcasting live from the Balloch Highland Games (from a caravan, also known as our outside broadcast unit).

DJs never really left vinyl and whilst CDs were useful at times, the joy of getting that crossfade between tracks just right, teasing in the few opening bars before dropping THAT track that always got people dancing. To help raise funds for the hospital radio I used to DJ at parties (think local bowling greens, Aunties and Uncles getting their groove on) and over time you got to know what would work, disco classics for the 40th birthdays, 2 Unlimited for the kids.

Of course let’s not forget the humble cassette tape which was the format for the majority of my music listening through my teenage years. A double tape deck at home allowed for mixtapes, a walkman (my first Boots own brand still the best) gave me freedom to take my music with me everywhere. A habit that persists to this day.

I moved away from vinyl in those years and my CD collection grew and grew; the first CD I ever bought was Bananarama: Greatest Hits (1988), the last was Foo Fighters Wasting Light (2011). Somewhere in the latter half of those 23 years the ‘mobile’ part of my listening habits moved to mini-discs; I had a mini-disc component in my stereo, a personal player, and even a mini-disc player in the car (where it was an obvious upgrade over cassette tape). Alas it never really took off and I was left with a betamax solution in a VHS world. RIP Mini-disc.

Let’s speed things up, it’s 2018 and we’ve zipped on past MP3s, Winamp and Napster and I now stream all my music from the cloud. I have one only device capable of playing CDs in my home (a Playstation) and I’m not even sure if my car has a CD player as I just connect my phone via bluetooth, or listen to (DAB) radio. The future is here and it’s online, bye bye physical manifestations of media!

I should at this point mention that up until last year I still owned a record player and when my parents moved out of the family home their depleted vinyl collection came to me. I spent a few wonderful weeks reliving my childhood through Abbey Road, Andy Williams, Simon & Garfunkel and Queen. I revisited my own LPs – Deacon Blue, Martin Stephenson & The Daintees, Simple Minds – and let the nostalgia wash over me. Such great times and memories to be had.

The scratchy sound on the older Beatles albums, all recorded in Mono, the remembered skip part way through Bridge over Troubled Waters, to my first ever gig to the strains of Belfast Child.

Kadunk, kadunk, kadunk. Time to flip the record over for side 2.

Kadunk, kadunk, kadunk. Flip the record over.

Kadunk, kadunk, kadunk. Flip the record over.

Kadunk, kad… ok that’s enough of that.

I had forgotten the downside to vinyl.

Unless you are playing through a stack of singles (who else had a ‘drop arm’ on their record player?) it gets a little monotonous flipping sides and whilst that can some churlish and, I think, for some it is entirely the point, a way to slow down and be ‘part of’ the listening experience for me it starts to getting mildly annoying.

A long bath is out of the question, kadunk, kadunk, kadunk. Some music to accompany washing up? Kadunk, kadunk, kadunk. Want some background music whilst you tidy up a couple of rooms… you get the picture.

That veneer of nostalgia soon faded, I put the records away and returned to Spotify. I threw together a quick playlist to replicate the songs I’d been playing on vinyl and after a couple of (uninterrupted playback) hours it struck me that the physical manifestation of the albums are not where my memories are stored, I can access the same memories, same emotions just by hearing the music.

It will transport me to the same time and space – The Heat Is On is the drive to my grandparents in Rutherglen – regardless of format. With that mindset I suddenly had a few boxes of vinyl that were, essentially, worthless to me.

So I got rid of them.

I passed a selection to someone who I knew would appreciate them and the rest went to the charity shop. I have no emotional attachment to the pressed black circles other than a mild case of ‘things were better in my day’ nostalgia. My attachment is to the tracks, the music and the performances they held, music and performances which are readily available in other formats, other formats which are decidely less hassle to use.

Editors Note: He’s steering clear of any discussion about fidelity on purpose.

It was World Vinyl Day recently (technically Record Store Day but that just makes me think of the Guinness Book, Norris McWhirter, Roy Castle…) and given the queues outside the record stores it’s safe to say that vinyl is not dead. But why?

I ponder this fully aware that I’m challenging the progress of technology in another area (books) by resorting to paperbacks instead of my Kindle…

The very thing that ends up annoying me about vinyl is perhaps the very reason to embrace it all the more. I mean sure every 20 mins or so you have to get up, or stop doing whatever your doing, to flip the damn thing over but in our always-on hyper-connected world, is that such an onerous task? Is it so hard to tear ourselves away from our screens for those few seconds?

I’ve no doubt there is likely an element of rose-tinted viewing when some people, particularly of my generation, look back at their experiences of vinyl. Yet looking at the people in the record stores today and you’ll find the usual mish-mash of ages, so it can’t all be that.

Putting aside those whose argument is seated in fidelity (hey, I wrote that Editors note ya know!) is this, to coin a phrase from James Murphy, simply “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties” *, a harking back to something deemed to be somehow better without any substance to that argument?

I have no idea what the real answer is and no doubt there isn’t AN answer at all. I’m sticking to my take, vinyl is popular because it’s a way of taking some ownership of your time. In the fight against social media and the tiny electronic miracles we keep in our pocket, it seems that an ageing non-digital format, one that is prone to damage and can only do one thing at a time, is managing holding its own.

Stop blaming Facebook

“The next two decades it’s gonna be privacy. I’m talking about the Internet. I’m talking about cell phones. I’m talking about health records and who’s gay and who’s not. And moreover, in a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?”
~ Sam Seaborn, The West Wing.

In case you missed the news, it turns out that tens of millions of people have had their Facebook data used by a company called Cambridge Analytics to help skew the last US Presidential election (good summary here). The joys!

Facebook privacy has always been a bit of an open secret, at least to those who work in IT. You can control a lot of the data that you give to Facebook, but every interaction you have adds to the huge amount of data they have access to and, as this particular ‘usage’ demonstrates, it isn’t all that hard to get more with a simple social hack; Hey, which Muppet do you resemble? Tell us your gender and a few other seemingly inconsequential pieces of data … hahaha you fell into our trap!

I am not preaching for a place of innocence either, I’ve filled in many of these daft little ‘games’ on Facebook, I have an active Instagram account where I sometimes include location information, I ‘check in’ to venues, I like and share articles and event posts. All of this adds to the bank of data that Facebook knows about me, and it sure isn’t rocket science to figure out that I’m a white, male, liberal, left-of-centrist who attends a lot of events in the Glasgow area (mind you, you just need to follow me on there to get a sense of any of that).

The details around this current headline grabbing sequence of events are still emerging but, regardless of whether you knowingly took the personality test that Cambridge Analytics posted or not, it’s the darker, blurrier edges of ‘my data’ that are finally making many people sit up and consider the implications.

I don’t think this is the end of Facebook, far from it, but I do hope it’s the beginning of a greater awareness for more people. For many years we’ve had it easy, blithely ignoring things like privacy because, after all, Facebook is a company and companies are held to account by … someone … somewhere, right? It’s another change in our online usage to which many of us will need to adapt; continually checking what data our apps and systems are sharing and who they are sharing it with, fact checking news to confirm if it’s fake or not, a higher state of vigilance than many of us have employed before.

Is this the payback for all those years of ‘free internet’? The assimiliation of all that free data is now coming back to bite us in the bum? Perhaps.

Or perhaps it’s society starting to move fully into the information and digital age, an age our parents can’t fully understand, one built in the cloud and manipulated by the behemoths that occupy those spaces, looking down on us like the gods they think they are.

Viva La Revolution? #deletefacebook? I don’t think so, but #bemoremindfulwithyourdecisions isn’t quite as catchy.

Yes, Facebook could and must do better in this space, transparency would help but I doubt it’ll ever happen, their entire business model is built on this kind of thing but regardless, blaming Facebook entirely is not a new line of thinking. Yes, I think they shoulder some of the blame here but whilst we have the pitchforks sharpened, perhaps we all need to look a little closer to home.


Step 1: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2018/03/how-change-your-facebook-settings-opt-out-platform-api-sharing

I met a spaceman

Ground control to Major Tom…
Ground control to Major Tom:
Lock your Soyuz hatch and put your helmet on!

I can still remember the first time I heard Space Oddity. I can recall just how otherworldly it sounded to me and while that was largely down to Mr. Bowie (an entirely other being for sure) it sits squarely alongside a similarly titled book that I’d just finished reading which was, in turn, the very reason I had listened to that track in the first place.

I was maybe 12 years old at the time and the idea of space was more Star Wars than 2001 but I was slowly learning about the Apollo program and pages of my encyclopedia were starting to fall open at anything space related. I wouldn’t say it was a phase, it wasn’t like I wanted to be an astronaut or anything but, especially for people who grew up in the 60, 70s and 80s, space was a big deal.

The Space Shuttle was still active, and no matter how many times you see the footage it’s still mind-boggling to imagine, regardless how you try and frame it; as an engineering feat it’s one of the greatest achievements of mankind, the scale of it beyond anything done before; as a spectacle it’s equally mind-boggling, watching something that large move so so quickly.

And these days with the rise of social media, streaming content from the ISS being, it’s even more prevalent and even easier to keep up with. The fascination remains.

Fast forward to last Friday and I, along with a thousand or so others, found ourselves face to face with a spaceman. He goes by the name, and title, of Colonel Chris Hadfield, and there he was, an actual real life astronaut.

I’ve seen him interviewed and watched his YouTube videos that he recorded in space but wasn’t really sure what to expect. On stage were two chairs, two glasses of water, so I presumed it would be interview style. I was wrong, wonderfully wrong. Instead he spent about 1hr 45mins talking about, well, everything.

From his earliest days watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon, through all the decisions he made, all the things he decided to learn, he reaffirmed one notion; he wasn’t born an astronaut. He learned new things he thought would be useful, he looked at where he wanted to go and made decisions based on that desire, the desire to one day make it into space.

He also talked about the impact seeing the world from space and how clear it is that this is one world, that borders are invisible up there. He talked about the amazing and inspiring people he has worked with, all different genders, races, and religions. He talked about what happens when things go wrong in space (answer, you don’t panic because you’ve practised for when things go wrong).

He also made us laugh. Describing an incident he had during a spacewalk, when he was rendered temporarily blind, we all laughed aloud when he told us he was venting the air from his helmet out into space. I know, it doesn’t sound funny, maybe it’s the way he told it…

What struck me most, especially considering the number of young adults and children in the room, was his constant reaffirmation of ‘you can do whatever you want’. His positivity and belief that humankind is better together shone through. Even though they faced great danger, he said, it was important to remember that danger does not equal fear, you only fear the thing you do not know or have not prepared for, and that fear is easily overcome by learning and practising.

Yet it was all hyperbole. At one point he informed us that the odds of ‘something bad going wrong’ on his first flight aboard the Space Shuttle was 1 in 38. A quick check and it turned out that there were about 38 seats in each row of the seating. Would we have turned up that evening knowing that one person in each row would die?

Yet despite all the grandeur of space, and all of his amazing achievements, Colonel Chris Hadfield remained wonderfully self-effacing, full of empathy for his fellow humans, witty, and boy does he have a splendid moustache. His talk was uplifting, motivational, moving, revealing, and entertaining. He held our attention easily for the entire time, peppering his talk with photos and video clips and, of course, he closed by talking about that song, a version of which he recorded in space.

At the very end, he picked up a guitar and to a backdrop of a video showing shots of the world whizzing by underneath the ISS, he strummed and sang.

I can still remember the first time I heard Space Oddity and 30 years later for just the briefest of moments, on a dreich Friday evening in Glasgow, I was there. I was Major Tom.

iPhone X

Yes. I got THE new iPhone, not an 8 or 8 Plus, but the new shiniest of shiny one. Did you expect anything else?

No this is not my hand

Pre-ordered

Like millions of others, I hit the Apple App Store at 8.01 on the 27th October and reserved mine, with a provisional pickup date of the 18th November. So imagine my surprise when an email landed in my inbox on the 2nd of November saying my new iPhone was available for pickup. Surely a little snafu, I thought, but I clicked ‘Select a Date and Time’ presuming it would just confirm the 18th November date. But wait, what’s this… 10am on November the 3rd is available, why that’s tomorrow… that can’t be… click click CLICK! YASSSS!!!

And so, as I had the week off I found myself backing up my ‘old’ iPhone to my laptop and heading to the Apple Store the very next day to get my new shiniest of shiny iPhones!

Pick up

I am on the upgrade programme and after experience I had last year I was prepared for a wait (let’s just say that the finance company wasn’t really geared up for the overwhelming volume of people applying). So, as well as my laptop I had a book, bought a coffee and joined the queue. A few minutes later a very nice man with an Apple t-shirt wandered down to speak to me and confirmed that I was standing in the wrong queue – there were still people queueing just in case there were any left to buy that day – and I was whisked inside and a few moments later was introduced to Abi who was going to get me my new shiny iPhone X. In other words, Abi had just become my new bestest favouritest friend in the world ever.

Abi was very pleased I’d backed up my old iPhone that morning and, after confirming some details, clicking a few buttons marked Accept, and signing my name, one of her colleagues walked past and casually placed a new shiny iPhone X in front of me.

Just like that.

With my old iPhone wiped and handed over, I was invited to grab a seat to set up my new iPhone. I took my laptop out, and started to restore from the previous backup*. As I sorted that out I finished my coffee which was still at a very nice (hot) drinkable temperature. Yup, from walking through the door to setting up the new iPhone took all of 10 minutes, and that included the handset that Abi was using dying on her part way through the process.

First Impressions

That was a few days ago now but my very first impressions were, naturally, concerning that screen. I quite genuinely thought that there was a sticker on the front of the screen but no, it really does look unnaturally NOT digital… it’s hard to explain but the OLED screen really does make the experience look more natural and ‘real’. It is gorgeous.

Day to day use is, hardly surprising, pretty similar to using any device running iOS, however there are notable differences largely around Face ID and the lack of home button.

FaceID

All told it took me maybe a day to ‘switch’ over the muscle memory on how to unlock my phone. FaceID is remarkably intuitive and works well. For the first few days I found myself watching for the unlock animation to get a visual confirmation that my phone was unlocked but pretty soon I was just lifting the phone (raise to wake) and swiping up, it feels faster than jabbing the Home button and waiting for TouchID. It has ‘failed’ twice, once where the combination of direct sun on my face and very dark sunglasses foiled it (it worked just fine every other time that day though) and once where I had the phone upside down (hey, it’s one big flat sheet of glass).

Suffice to say that I’ve already forgotten to think about FaceID which speaks volumes of how dependable it has been, which is pretty remarkable in and of itself.

A nice side effect of raise to wake and FaceID is for notifications. Lift your phone and look at it and as it unlocks the preview info for each notification slides into view. That way I can quickly decide where to do anything with them or not. This was already there but not as easily viewed back in the TouchID days. And finally, with 1Password hooking into FaceID I can now complete forms, including complex passwords, just by looking at my screen. It really is 2017, at last!

UI changes

Two main muscle memory challenges await you. One is to stop looking for the Home button, the other is finding the Control Center.

Control Center is now accessed by swiping down from the top-right of the screen where the battery/wi-fi icons are. This is the biggest change in terms of distance (it used to be accessed by swiping up from the bottom of the screen) but it’s not been a big leap, but I think that’s largely because the way you interact with the bottom of the screen now is a lot different thanks to the fact there is no Home button anymore.

With no Home button you simply swiping up to go back to my home screen and swiping right in app to go back an app in the ‘stack’. There is a thin bar on-screen as a visual cue but after a couple of hours it felt natural. I think I have caught myself looking to push the Home button once and that was on day one.

As I said, coupled with TouchID, this fundamental change is so fluid that it has already been relegated to the unconscious part of my brain. It’s just how I use my iPhone now.

Other changes

Battery life seems better (than my iPhone 7) with a full day and then some; I took my phone off the (wireless) charger at 8.30am yesterday and after a lot of photos, and a lazy social media afternoon it still had about 36% left at 11pm. Obviously the camera is a step up as I now have access to Portrait mode which produces some wonderful images, but nothing that you iPhone Plus users aren’t used to. That said, I can’t wait to see how it handles taking pics at the gig I’m at this evening (Dinosaur Pile-up at King Tuts).

Wireless charging is a little underwhelming but again that’s a good sign. I bought a Samsung charger in preparation for getting the phone, popped the iPhoneX on it and it … works. That’s about all I have to say about that.

There are some noticeable differences in the form factor. Size wise it feels a little heavier than my iPhone 7 but nothing dramatic, and it’s not physical all that much bigger either, the advantage of the full-screen display is the most striking benefit. I opted for the white version and it is a gorgeous piece of hardware, and feels like a real step up in quality**.

Down side

As many others have noted, and will notice, the only thing I don’t like is the keyboard. Or rather, the space under the keyboard. I’m not quite sure why it’s there and I hope future releases of iOS ‘fix’ it.

OK, but is it any good?

This is the first iPhone that has felt like a real upgrade for quite a while. The form factor of the previous few iterations didn’t change dramatically, especially for those of us who use a case and don’t see the subtle differences in materials and bevels. The new screen is the star here though, or is it FaceID? Technically it should be the latter given the myriad of advance technology that powers it but in true Apple style ‘it just works’ and you soon forget about it.

I am still getting that tiny little moment of joy every time FaceID kicks in though, it’s so simple and really does feel like a step forward. As many others have noted, I too find my year old iPad Pro now feels pretty cumbersome… I had to manually enter a password the other day, what the..!!

Yes, I’m a bit of an Apple fanboy but putting that aside this is a stellar bit of kit. Highly advanced, beautifully crafted, it is a big step forward, possibly one of the biggest Apple has made in recent years. It’s the kind of thing people expect Apple to do, although it’s worth remembering that a lot of the features that are coming together to make this new phone a reality have been developed over the past few years. This is NOT a reaction to other handsets or companies, this is Apple doing their own thing, in their own time, with their own reasoning and compromises.

And it’s beautiful.

Ohhh and I should point out the one thing that truly hasn’t been an issue.

The notch.


* Top tip – if your current iPhone is running a BETA release of iOS, which my iPhone 7 was, you can’t restore from a backup as the new phone will be on an older release of iOS. Thankfully I also had an iCloud backup so got all the right apps and most of the settings back, just took an age to download them all again.

** Back in the day I worked for a software company – Dr. Solomons – and you could buy a CD of their anti-virus software from stores. The amount of time taken to choose the cardboard box that the CD and accompanying manual came in was largely focused on if the box suggested high quality. Heavier cardboard (and heavier paper in the manual) passed all the consumer tests. We associate heft with quality, even if only subliminally

AirPods, finally

I’ve held off getting a set off these for some time but as my current ‘commuting’ in-ear headphones (JLabs Epic BT – discontinued) are starting to show their age, both in terms of wear and tear and in how the diminishing battery life is impacting the Bluetooth connectivity. Although admittedly the latter concern is purely based on my perception, but they do seem to drop the connection to my iPhone far more than they used to, even though I logically know that the science behind that thinking is bunkum.

I do have another pair of bluetooth headphones – my wonderful Jabra Revos – but I prefer in-ear for commuting as they let in enough ambient noise to keep me aware of my surroundings (the Jabras aren’t noise cancelling but are such a good fit they might as well be).

It’s taken me almost a year to get AirPods though. Whilst the Apple fanboy in me was intrigued when Apple announced their new AirPods last year, for once I was sensible and held off as I had a pair of in-ear bluetooth headphones already. Since then I’ve read reviews, some right after the announcement, some after a few weeks of usage, and on the whole they’ve been positive with the main gripe some people had was more around the fit than anything else.

I’ve used the Apple provided in-ear headphones in the past, and carry a set in my bag as a backup, and whilst they aren’t the greatest I know, they fit my ears and perform well enough for a 30 minute commute, but they still have that damn cable…

Fast forward to last week and more intrigue was added by Apple’s announcement that they were planning to add wireless charging (via a new case) for the AirPods. And, while I won’t be upgrading my Apple Watch to a Series 3 any time soon, that little demo of the AirPower (ugh) charging pad, where you plonk your iPhone X, your AirPods in their cases, and your Apple Watch, down on a single charging pad is definitely something I’ll move to in the future; one simple solution, rather than three messy cables, YES PLEASE!

I picked up my AirPods yesterday and after a couple of hours usage I’m was instantly a fan. The complete lack of a cable is the most obvious change, and the sound has definitely improved since I last used Apple provided headphones but the real win was the connectivity. Typically with my previous bluetooth headphones my phone had to be in a pocket on the right of my body (as the main sensor in the headphones was on the right hand side) and many times I’d end up carrying it in my hand as the signal dropped in and out at frustratingly increasing intervals.

These drops of connection only really occur when travelling/walking, where I want to have my iPhone in my pocket. This isn’t an issue when I use them at home, or at my desk at work, where there is nothing to obstruct the signal, but the minute you add a layer of fabric or two and WELC OME TO D ROP OU T CI TY!

Not so with the AirPods. Even when I deliberately tried to get it to drop the connection – I wrapped my iPhone in my hat and stuffed that in my jacket pocket, then swung my bag over that pocket – the AirPods kept on working.

Sound wise they are ok, yet it’s here (hear?) that I’m making a compromise of fidelity of usability. The JLabs Epics sound a lot better, but then they are a different design with soft rubber tips that sit a little deeper in my ear canal and create a better acoustic seal so I’d expect that. And it’s not that the AirPods sound bad at all, just that in a like for like comparison they don’t stack up all that well.

However, when you add in just how easy it is to pair the AirPods with your phone, and more importantly how easy it is to use them throughout the day (they power on/off automatically so no more re-pairing), I’ve yet to find a reasonable reason to criticise them. I COULD possibly complain about the price but then you remember that the Case includes a battery too and it’s hard to fault them.

It’s sometimes hard to judge a product like this without using them. I’d read a lot of good things about AirPods but they are, as many others have already said, a quintessentially Apple product.

They just work.

X or not

We’ve had a couple of days to digest the recent Apple keynote, and a few more days than that to pour over the leaked data that basically outlined all of the announcements and almost reduced the keynote to little more than a series of (mostly) slick product presentations.

Almost, but not quite. There was certainly no hint about the opening video and tribute to Steve Jobs, which was a nice surprise and perfectly handled by an emotional Tim Cook, and it certainly added to the poignancy of the occasion. The new venue certainly looks impressive but I find I’m still stuck between thinking it’s either ‘over indulgent’ and/or ‘inspiring’ but there is no doubt it’s well designed with an incredibly high attention to detail (check the linked article for details on the concrete handrails).

Of course these events are really all about the iPhone and, once we’d gotten some Apple TV (4K and better content availability), and Apple Watch Series 3 (Cellular built in) news, it was on to the stars (plural) of the show.

Actually , I’m doing the Apple Watch a disservice, whilst the ‘appeal’ of making and taking calls on my Watch, and being able to leave my iPhone at home, isn’t really high on the list of my desires, I have to admit that the Apple Watch live demo, if it really was that slick, certainly confirms that there is some damn impressive tech crammed into a tiny wrist computer. Ultimately, the only real reason for me to want to update to a Series 3 Apple Watch would be the new wireless charging option… but more on that later.

On to the iPhones then.

Personally I’ve long since given up any pretence that I WON’T upgrade but knowing that this year they’d be announcing three new models, the question is more about which model I’ll go for, a ‘like for like’ upgrade to an iPhone 8? A ‘go big or go home’ upgrade to an iPhone 8 Plus? Or a ‘GIMME THE NEW SHINY’ upgrade to the iPhone X. And those of you who know me (even a little!) are already probably rolling your eyes and thinking, ‘obviously it’ll be the iPhone X’.

And that was my first reaction too. But I’ve had a little time to step back and apply some non-emotion based thinking (it really does look very pretty and shiny!) and ask myself the quesiton, am I really ready to part with £1000 just to get a nicer screen, FaceID and wireless charging? On the face of it (pun intended) that’s a lot of money for a few features.

Of course it’s not that simple – is it ever? – and there are other things to be considered.

I’ve been an iPhone user for a long time and most of the functionality that I am concerned with is based in the way iOS does (or doesn’t) do things. As much a fanboy as I am, I’m not completely wedded or bought in to the Apple Ecosystem. I use Spotify instead of Apple Music, I have an Amazon Alexa so won’t be getting the Apple equivalent, I use Dropbox over iCloud, etc etc.

Yet there are a few limitations with my current iPhone 7 that are hardware based, namely the camera. I’ve used my iPhone as my main camera for a few years now (I really should sell my Canon EOS) and whilst it has improved version over version, the one irk I have is that whilst I don’t want a phone the size of iPhone Plus I have coveted the additional camera capabilities it has.

Stepping outside of the iPhone X world then, I have a straight choice if I want to upgrade my current phone – which obviously I will because why else would I be on the uprade programme – do I go to iPhone 8 which doesn’t really give me anything all that new in terms of hardware/form functionality (sure it’s faster but at this point am I even gonna notice?), or do I go to iPhone 8 Plus to get the improved camera BUT have to live with a phone that no longer comfortably fits in my pocket.

If only there was an option for something with the improved camera capabilities that wasn’t as big as an iPhone Plus.

Hmmmmmmm.

OK, so the iPhone X is bigger than the iPhone but not by all that much, and it isn’t as big as the iPhone Plus… so on that basis alone…

OK. I know, I KNOW, this is a long-winded blog post for something you’ve all already figured out. This isn’t a WILL I/WON’T I discussion, this is a WHY CAN’T I GET IT NOW! justification post, I’m well aware of that.

Regardless of all of this waffling justification, the one thing that struck me on watching the keynote was that the iPhone X is interesting, it’s new (enough), it has different things to offer. The iPhone 8 simply isn’t all that exciting and mirrors my increasing ‘meh’ feeling (and that of others). Every keynote we hope for something NEW, something that LEAPS FORWARD, much as the original iPhone did. Sure the iPhone 8 has some improvements, a bump in spec, etc etc but I don’t think I’d see any particular difference given I’m already running iOS 11 on my iPhone 7, and that’s where the day to day changes are manifest.

But a new form factor, a new screen type, a new set of functionality, that is something that appeals, that excites, even if it’s still not a leap forward in any particular way, shape or form.

Of course this is a large part of the problem for tech companies like Apple. The further they hone their products to make them easier and better for users, the further away the amazing technology is hidden. Face ID is a great example, a simple piece of functionality that is powered by some utterly amazing technology (plus the icon is a nice touch). If it works as well as Apple claim it’ll be a nice addition. Plus, who WOULDN’T want an animated talking Poo Animoji message!

I’ll close with a final, personal, piece of justification. I have to admit that whilst it’s not new technology (shut up Samsung owners, I KNOW!) the wireless charging is a nice boon and I know that it’s this type of simpler implementations of things that I enjoy the most; for example, my main use of Alexa is to turn off three lamps in my Living Room at one time, yes it’s lazy but it’s so simple and easy to say a few words as I walk out of the room and leave as the room falls dark. Apply that thinking and wireless charging leaps up the list of ‘simpler is better’ justifications and… hello iPhone X!


If you are so interested you can watch the Keynote here, even if only for the opening few minutes showing the new Steve Jobs Theatre space.