Category Archives: Gadgets & Toys

Gone with the wind

Here’s my new toy, charging up at the Birchanger Green service station on the M11 yesterday.


Now, I’m no eco-warrior, but it’s very satisfying to think that the great majority of the 250-or-so miles I’ve driven in it so far have been powered by wind, thanks to Ecotricity.

And the total fuel cost to me has been under £1 so far. (I topped it up at home one night.)

Also, it has cool doors!


Best. Gadget. Yet.

On Thursday evening I got a new mobile device, and this time it wasn’t from Apple.

It has two displays, a variety of inputs, front and rear cameras, GPS tracking, and remarkably good audio output. The internet connectivity is built in; I guess there’s an embedded SIM somewhere but I don’t have to worry about it. It has a touchpad, and reasonable speech recognition.

All of this takes a fair amount of power, so it has a largish charging cable – it’s one of the few mobile gadgets I’ve bought recently which can’t be charged via USB. This is inconvenient, but I’m working out ways to deal with it.

Anyway, all in all, it’s great fun, and there’s a software update coming out sometime in the next couple of weeks which should make it even better.

Oh, and here’s a photo.

Thinking electric


I’ve been test-driving electric and hybrid cars recently. I’ve tried the all-electric Renault Zoe and Nissan Leaf, and the plug-in hybrid Golf GTE. All of these are excellent cars, and a pleasure to drive. I’d recommend anyone thinking of a second car to have a look at them; a used Zoe with very few miles on the clock will set you back about £8000, and since Renault have a battery-leasing scheme you need to add about £4000 to that if you keep the car for five years. I enjoyed driving it. The Leaf is even better, but a bit bigger and more expensive – it’s a really nice car. The manufacturers have gone out of their way to make sure that driving one of these has as few surprises as possible for anyone used to any other vehicle. We’re thinking about a replacement for our main car, though, and we’re not quite ready to go all-electric for that. In 5 years’ time, that will be completely viable, but not yet, not for us.

So, ever since I heard first about the Golf GTE, I thought that might be the answer. Our current Golf has been probably the best car I’ve owned, the local dealer is very good, and this would let us venture into the hybrid/electric world while keeping our feet safely on the ground. And VW have some very nice extras like automatic parallel parking, and a good adaptive cruise control. When people talk about cruise controls I tend to think about motorway driving, but what’s possibly even cooler is its ability to keep you a constant distance from the car in front while crawling through slow-moving traffic. I really liked that.

But there’s a problem.


The problem is that in the middle of this process, I drove the BMW i3. For those of you not acquainted with the i3, it’s an electric car designed from the ground-up, built with various lightweight, innovative (and often recycled) materials, in a factory powered almost entirely by renewable energy, and so on. It’s quirky, and great fun, though it also comes with a BMW price tag. Ouch. Still, there are some used ones available now, and at least it’s not a Tesla.

But the i3 has an optional extra that almost everybody buys: the range-extender (known to the cognoscenti as the ‘REx’). This is a little 30HP 600cc engine tucked away below the boot which can charge the battery from a two-gallon petrol tank and extend the roughly 90 miles of normal electric range for another 90 miles, or, in fact, for as far as you like if you don’t mind stopping to fill up every hour and a half! So I could, if wanted, drive from here to the Lake District in the opposite corner of Britain with just a couple of stops even if all the (increasingly plentiful) electric charging points en route were full or inoperative.

So it’s not a true hybrid, in the sense that the engine is never intended to be the main thing driving the car. In fact, many owners use the REx so rarely that the car will switch it on briefly every few hundred miles just to keep it happy. But, for me, it’s the thing that lets you have an innovative and almost all-electric car and yet bridge the next few years until the charging infrastructure is more fully developed. And after driving it, other hybrids like the Golf seem, well, rather compromised: packing two full engines into a car that therefore only has an electric range of around 30 miles, when the 90 electric miles or so available from a more thoroughly-electric car would almost cover me for a typical week on a single charge. (This may be important, since I have no off-street parking at home.)

I like living in the future – or at least, trying to. (Shaw was right.) Even Rose, who’s an historian and likes living in the past, can see the attraction of this. Imagine you’re thinking of buying a boat. The sensible thing to get is a motor yacht, because it can go anywhere in almost any weather. But it’s so much more romantic, and beautiful, and pioneering, and quiet, and environmentally friendly, to get something with sails instead, even if you then have to plan a little bit more about where you can go, and when. Well, this is a sailing boat, but with an outboard motor, for when you need it, but with the added interesting twist that it can out-accelerate almost any other speedboat in the harbour.

So yesterday I went (with my friends Michael and Laura, who have one) to a gathering of i3 owners near Milton Keynes to find out more. There were about 34 i3s there, and a couple of i8s, which means the combined battery capacity was approaching a megawatt-hour. Your physics assignment for this morning is to work out what kind of fun things you could do if, say, you discharged all of that over five or ten minutes. (I’m thinking about, for example, using some wind-turbines as fans…)


It was a happy gathering despite the yucky grey weather, and some very helpful, knowledgeable and cheery BMW staff had turned up from the North Oxford dealership (thanks, guys!) even though they probably guessed they weren’t going to make many sales, since everybody but me already had one!

Still, who knows, they might make one more sale before too long…

The driverless car is coming

When I express my enthusiasm for autonomous vehicles, which I’ve done on this blog recently and to many patient friends over lunch tables in the last few weeks, they sometimes respond with skepticism:

“Well, I can see we might have better cruise controls, or smarter braking and automatic parking systems, but I don’t think we’ll ever be able to take our hands of the wheel completely.”

“But the car is still a relatively recent invention, and look how far it’s come already”, I reply. “It’s only a little over 100 years since the Wright brothers first managed to fly 100 feet, and we pretty much have self-flying airliners. Do you really think that in 100 years we’ll still be pointing these deadly human-controlled missiles at each other on narrow roads?”

That, at least, is the neat turn of phrase I might employ if the lunch hasn’t involved much wine or beer by this point. And they usually admit that, yes, maybe, perhaps I have a point.

“And so the question isn’t whether we will get driverless cars, but when, and what the route is between here and there. It will start with smarter cruise controls — it already is, in fact — and then maybe certain highways will have special lanes in which you can take your hands off the wheel if you’re appropriately equipped. Maybe some airports will allow self-valet-parking cars in the car parks. And soon, as we’re resurfacing country roads, we’ll be building in the wires that will make the whole driving process cheaper and easier and less dependent on complex maps and camera systems. But whether you think it’s going to be in 100 years, or within my lifetime, or — as I sincerely hope — before I retire, it is going to happen.”

This is pretty much the point that Matt Honan makes in this Buzzfeed article, but, of course, he does it better than me even without beer.

And he can speak more authoritatively about Google’s cars, because he’s actually been in one.

To every day turn, turn, turn

From our ‘Things we could patent but probably won’t’ department…

Here’s something I’d like, which should not be too hard to create: a satellite navigation system that understood, when it gave you a direction, the consequences of your failing to do so.

If it’s telling me to take a motorway exit which, if I miss it, will involve driving 10 miles further on before I can even turn round, I’d like it to notify me of that in no uncertain terms. It can flash red and yell at me if necessary, especially if I don’t seem to be slowing down and changing lane. It can do so even if I normally have the audio turned off. And it can do so if the route it previously suggested is no longer appropriate, because there’s been an accident resulting in a three-mile tailback.

If, on the other hand, it wants me to turn left but there are several other left turns ahead, any of which will do, and none of which will add more than a minute or two to my journey, then it can inform me in a much more relaxed way.

What do you think? Am I on to something here?


Screwed in a quiet place

2015-06-05_08-53-25-03This morning I composed a longish message to my nephew, James, by dictating to my watch – a procedure that worked beautifully. There then followed a brief discussion on the quality of speech recognition. I turned to my Mac – because, of course, iMessage conversations are synchronised across all devices – and I continued dictating. “It’s good in a quiet location with a good network connection!”

Sadly, this time, I did not enunciate the first couple of words quite so clearly, and the Mac cheerfully recorded, “Screwed in a quiet location with a good network connection!”.

Which might have conjured up all sorts of interesting images at the other end.

Still, I guess that’s just what they call ‘social networking’.

Now, had I instead sent the message, “It’s god in a quiet location with a good network connection!”, it would still have been amusing, but understandable, in these days of careless typists and small keyboards. It’s something we’ve adapted to, like illegible writing in the past. But, as I have a rapidly dwindling number of electronic devices in the house that do not at least claim to understand speech, I wonder when our ability to understand speakos will become as well-developed as our ability to interpret typos…

My first Apple Watch accessory


The standard Apple charger clips into this Spigen charging stand. Works nicely for me.

Is your technology getting underfoot?


I think this is great. Not long ago we would have thought internet-connected cars somewhat futuristic. Internet-connected bicycles would surely be next. But how far can you push that idea? Well, how about instrumenting your cycling using a pedal which has its own 3G connection and is self-powered?

More information about Connected Cycle here and on their web site.

Wrist recursion

My new watch can be used as the viewfinder for my iPhone camera. So, of course, the first thing it wanted to do was take a selfie.


There’s a slight delay in the image, and in the shutter release, which means that the shot the camera actually took was after my finger had moved off the screen, but the image on the watch, from a second before, still shows it in place. If you click to see the full-size image, you can see a few levels of recursion (which says something about the resolution of this 1.5″ display!).

Titanium nostalgia

Just over 14 years ago, in one of my first blog posts on Status-Q, I referred to the amazing fact that Apple, with the impending launch of OS X, was about to become, overnight, the largest vendor of Unix operating systems.

Unix was, up to that point, beloved of those of us working in universities and other scientific institutions, but was notoriously unfriendly to anyone not familiar with its highly-abbreviated command language. It sold in small quantities on expensive workstations, and the idea that the creator of the cuddly Macintosh was about to start deploying it on ordinary desktops seemed astonishing. In a little over a decade it would have evolved to be not only at the core of their mobile phones, but even on their watches!

Today, I fired up the Titanium Powerbook G4, the machine I was just starting to use at about that time.

For nostalgia reasons, I was revisiting the classic Mac OS, but back then I had been playing with the developer preview of OS X for a while, and when it was officially released I switched to the Mac and never looked back. I didn’t realise that I had made quite such a transition at the time, but a few months later I wrote:

At CNET there’s a comparison of Windows 2000 vs Mac OS X which comes out in favour of OS X. I’m a bit dubious about the higher OS X score for hardware compatibility, but it’s pleasing none the less. I currently use 3 machines on a regular basis. One runs Win2K, one runs Linux, and one runs Mac OS X. They all have their pros and cons, but if I could keep just one, I think it would be the Mac. I find myself pining for it when I’m using the others and, for all its current limitations, the reverse is seldom true.

P.S. I noticed a couple of other things from those early posts. The first is that they are both called ‘[untitled]’, because the convention of putting a title on blog posts hadn’t been established back then. The second is that neither of the URLs I linked to still work now. Never assume the web is going to be a long-term reference archive unless you control the site yourself!

The new Duracell

I had the honour of meeting Elon Musk briefly some years ago. Back then, he was just doing space exploration. There aren’t very many people for whom you could write that sentence – even without the word ‘just’ – but for him, its inclusion is entirely appropriate.

Now, he seems to be doing… well… everything that’s cool. I have since admired his orbital exploits, ridden in his cars, and, of course, bought a significant proportion of my purchases using Paypal – which helps pay for all the rest.

The latest product is apparently to be batteries – here’s the new press announcement – but these are not your average AAs. They’re wall-mounting.


At 10kWh, these could run a lot of LED lightbulbs for a long time. Especially if you’re not also using them to recharge your model S.

They’re designed to make it easier for solar-equipped households to depend less on the grid, especially by time-shifting the peak sunshine energy at noon to the morning and evening, when there’s peak demand. That’s not simply about being green: just a few weeks ago, visiting friends were telling us about the ‘loadshedding‘ powercuts in Cape Town recently, where everybody got a scheduled two-hour outage each day to help cope with the insufficient power-generation capabilities in the country. This seems perfect for that, too.

Still, the next challenge Musk has to address is the really tricky one: the manufacture of solar panels which don’t ruin the appearance of the building to which they’re attached.

How to turn Apple Photos into a more powerful editor

Apple recently released OS X Yosemite 10.10.3, which includes their Photos app – the replacement for iPhoto.

This is unlikely ever to become my normal photo-management and editing tool, but it does have some nice features, and it has more editing controls than you might at first realise:

Also available on Vimeo.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser