Category Archives: Gadgets & Toys

A greener buzz?

When I was young, electric toothbrushes were something we laughed at.  Imagine being too lazy even to wiggle a toothbrush up and down without powered assistance! But as an adult, I discovered that most dentists now thought they were rather good, and recommended them.  

Electric toothbrushes did a better job of cleaning in general, they said, and the smaller head would get into places that manual toothbrushes wouldn’t reach.  Perhaps, I thought, gadget enthusiasts like me shouldn’t feel embarrassed about actually trying one.  I wouldn’t have to admit it to anyone..

“There’s a huge range”, I remember my dentist telling me. “Don’t go for the ones with silly prices and dozens of bells and whistles.  40 quid or so is probably about right.”

So, for a while, that’s the kind of thing I used.  They’re probably about 50 or 60 quid now.  They have a rechargeable battery, sit on a base that charges it inductively, and have a simple timer to help you spend the right amount of time brushing.  You know the kind of thing.

But one thing about them always bugged me: the batteries were rubbish.

Long before the motor or the casing gave up the ghost, the built-in, non-replaceable battery would die, or stop holding enough charge even for one brush, and the whole thing would have to go in the bin.  Then I’d buy a new one, which came with its own charging base, so the previous base, and cable, and plug – they all went in the bin too.

This was not very good for my wallet, and a great deal worse for the environment.

So I expect you will laugh, gentle reader, when I tell you that what changed my purchasing habits was brushing my dog’s teeth.  Yes, our spaniel gets her teeth brushed every night, and she enjoys her chicken-flavoured toothpaste, but won’t tolerate brushing for very long, so we got her an electric brush, too, to make maximum use of the time available!

We weren’t going to buy her any big 60-quid devices, though, so we looked online for ones designed for children, and Tilly now has a children’s Oral-B toothbrush.  It’s pink and blue and I think it has fairies or princesses or unicorns on it, but she doesn’t seem to mind.  

And as we used this, a few things struck me:

  • The motor mechanism looked as if it was just the same as my own expensive one.
  • It took the same brush heads.
  • It used replaceable AA batteries.  I had plenty of rechargeable Eneloop AAs.  (Take a look at my post from about 10 years ago to see why I like those. I’m still using much the same system now, and most of the batteries I had back then are still in use.)
  • This also meant I didn’t need to have charging bases and cables in the bathroom.
  • It didn’t have a timer.  But I could count elephants.
  • It cost about one quarter of the price.

And so I now have, and can recommend, a very basic Oral-B battery-powered toothbrush. Currently £14.99 on Amazon.  It has lasted longer than my previous expensive ones, and the two AA batteries hold their charge way longer than the built-in ones ever did.  Occasionally, I take them out to charge and swap in some fully-charged ones from my drawer — that’s why I love Eneloops and similar rechargables: they stay fully-charged in the drawer — and freshly-charged batteries seem to last for weeks.

Since I got this, some years back, nothing has gone in the bin except the occasional elderly brush head, and when it does eventually die, it’ll be far less wasteful than something that takes its batteries and charging base to the grave with it.

Oh, and best of all? Mine doesn’t have any princesses or unicorns on it.  Tilly is still bitter about that.

Zappi Days

When I installed my home solar system, I also replaced my perfectly-functional car charger with a new one: a Myenergi Zappi. Why?

The Zappi is a popular charger, designed in the UK, and rapidly finding favour in other parts of the world. Here, I talk about what it can do, things you might need to take into account if connecting to a car like the Tesla, and a little bit of magic geekery I set up to make it fit my needs even better.

(Direct Link)

House of the Future

Some people may consider my fondness for home automation to be a frivolous pursuit.

Well, let me tell you this…

Tonight, as I left the excellent Chinese take-away a few miles from my house, accompanied by this evening’s dinner, I was able to turn on the hotplate in the kitchen at home, so that by the time we got back, the plates were nice and warm and ready to hit the table.

Let nobody say humanity is not reaping the benefits of scientific progress…

A small section of the touch control panel in my kitchen.

MeetingBuster and the Christmas Call Diary

There was a period of a few years when I played quite extensively with VOIP, which for the uninitiated, stands for Voice-Over-Internet-Protocols, sometimes called ‘IP Telephony’. This isn’t about Zoom and Skype and FaceTime, but about traditional phone calls: the things your parents used to make (and maybe still do), often using devices attached to the wall with wires!

It all seems very obvious now, but there was a point between about 20 and 10 years ago when the typical office phone changed from being an audio device plugged into a landline-style connection with analogue voltages talking to a phone exchange, to being something digital that plugged into the ethernet and had an IP address. Telephone calls, hitherto controlled by large national monopolies with expensive proprietary equipment and hideously complex signalling protocols, started to become something ordinary users could manage with their own software, even Open Source software.

Companies that had previously paid vast sums of money to buy or lease a PBX (the ‘Private Branch Exchange’ that gave you internal phone numbers and routed calls to and from external numbers), could now just install software on a cheap PC and route calls to phone handsets over the local network. If you also routed calls over the wider internet, limitations of most broadband connections meant that the quality and reliability left something to be desired, but, as one perceptive observer commented at the time, “The great thing about mobile networks is that they have lowered people’s expectations of telephony to the point where VOIP is a viable solution.”

Phone Phun

And what you could do in an office, you could also do at home, just for fun. I loved this stuff, because in my youth telephony had embodied the quintessence of big faceless corporations: you paid them, they told you what you could and couldn’t do with the socket in your wall, you lived with the one phone number they decided to give you, and could only plug in the equipment that they approved. Any variations on this theme rapidly became very expensive.

With VOIP, however, you could now get multiple phone numbers in your own house and configure how they were handled yourself. I had one number that was registered in Seattle (because I was doing lots of work there), but it rang a phone in my home office in Cambridge — the same one that also had one Cambridge number and one London one — with the calls routed halfway around the world over the internet, basically for free. All of a sudden, you could do things that the Post Office, BT, AT&T, or whoever, would never have let you do in the past. It was fun!

Part of my interest came from the clear parallels between how phone calls were handled in this new world, and the way HTTP requests were handled on the web. I first got involved in telephony with the AT&T Broadband Phone project back in 1999, when my friends and I had to write our own telephony stack based on the new SIP protocol, and build our own custom hardware to connect our SIP network to real-world phone lines.

But, as with the early days of the web, Open Source servers soon emerged so you didn’t have to write your own! The Asterisk and, a little later, FreeSwitch packages were very much analogous to Apache and Nginx in the web world. Calls came in, and you decided what to do with them using a set of configuration rules similar to those that might determine what page or image to return for a particular URL. Voice prompts and keypad button presses were a bit like forms and submit buttons on web pages… and so on.

Anyway, there were a couple of quick hacks that I put together at the time which turned out to be rather useful, so if you’re still with me after the history lesson above, I’ll describe them.

The Christmas Call Diary

We were a young startup company, with about half-a-dozen employees, operating primarily out of a garden shed in Cambridge. But we had sold products to real customers who expected a decent level of support. As Christmas approached, we realised that the office was going to be empty for about a fortnight, and started to wonder what would happen if anybody had technical support issues and needed urgent help.

So I set up a shared Google calendar, and asked everyone to volunteer to be available for particular periods of time over the holiday, just in case any customers called; a possibility that was, we hoped, pretty unlikely, but it would improve our reputation no end if somebody did answer. All we had to do was put entries in the calendar that contained our mobile or home number during times when we didn’t mind being disturbed. People valiantly signed up.

We were running a VOIP exchange on an old Dell PC, and I wrote a script to handle incoming calls, which worked like this:

  • When a call comes in, ring all the phones in the office for a short while.
  • If nobody picks up, then look at the special Google Calendar to see if there’s a current entry, and if its contents look like a phone number. If so, then divert the call to that number.
  • If it isn’t answered after a short while, send the caller to our voicemail system, and email the resulting message to all of us.

In the end, I don’t think anybody did call, but the script worked as intended, and allowed us to have a more worry-free Christmas break, which was perhaps its most important achievement!

MeetingBuster

Back in 2006, I registered the domain MeetingBuster.com, and thanks to the wonderful Internet Archive, I can see once again what the front page looked like, which neatly explains its purpose (click if you need a larger image):

A later update allowed you to call MeetingBuster and press a number key within 10 seconds, and your callback would then happen that many tens of minutes later, so pressing ‘3’ just before going into a meeting would give you an option to escape from it after half an hour. (Remember this was all well before the iPhone was released, so all such interactions had to be based on DTMF tones.)

Anyway, Meetingbuster was just for fun, and there are probably better ways to escape from today’s virtual meetings. But if/when we go back to face-to-face meetings again, and you need an excuse to say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I really ought to answer that; do you mind?”, then let me know and perhaps I can revive it!

Location, location, revisited

Previously on Status-Q…

Regular readers may remember that a couple of months ago, I lost my glasses and found them again. If you missed that particularly gripping episode, turn back to Location, location, location (or, ‘How technology saved me a few hundred quid yesterday’) and then you’ll understand the background here.

After posting it, my friend Phil Endecott got in touch with me. “Am I to understand”, he said, “that you would find it useful if you had a map app that could show both the locations of your photos and your current location at the same time? If so, I may have just what you need….”

And he did indeed. Phil, you see, is the author of UK Map, an iOS app that I’ve had for as long as I can remember, and one I should talk about more, because I use it all the time, especially when looking for new dog-walking routes. Yes, I may use Google Maps to find out how long it’ll take me to drive there, and Streetview to check that there’s likely to be a parking spot when I get there, but once I’ve laced up my walking boots, then I generally switch to UK Map. It combines free or paid-for Ordnance Survey maps with footpaths from Open Street Map, and, certainly round here, it’s a much better guide than almost anything else as to where you can actually go for a walk.

New features get added periodically and, like much of the cool stuff, are often buried deep in some menu below some unassuming icon in the corner, making them very easy to miss, so you really do want to go to the home page and read it carefully to see what the app can do, and then to the help button in the app to see how to do it. I don’t check these often enough, but when Phil’s message prompted me, I had another explore and found that, yes, it can show your photos on your maps. This is the site of my aforementioned adventure:

and if I had been there at the time of writing this, the little blue dot would indeed have shown me exactly what I needed to know. (The violet-coloured triangle there, by the way, is showing the rough direction in which the phone was pointing when it took the picture, and therefore shows what you may be able to see in it. Neat, eh?)

Anyway, I’ve mentioned UK Map before, but I’ve used it for so many years that I take it for granted. I do think that if you put in a little time learning what it can do, you’ll find it repays its very modest purchase price. Actually, it’ll repay that even if, like me, you really only scratch the surface.

P.S. If you happen to be anywhere other than the UK, this will be of limited use, but if you’re in North America, Phil is also the author of the highly-rated Topo Maps

AirTags for Airheads?

Well, somewhat to my surprise, I found an Apple AirTag to be remarkably useful today! (I bought them because, well, I just like gadgets and these are beautifully-engineered gadgets, but I wasn’t sure how much I’d actually use them.)

This wasn’t anything dramatic: no long-lost pets being recovered from the other side of the county or anything like that. No, we were going out, and I wanted to find my keys. It turned out that, last night, I had used them to unlock the side door before putting some things in the recycling bin, and, perhaps because I had my hands full and my mind elsewhere, had left the keys on the shelf beside the door: not somewhere they would ever normally live. Then a plastic bag had been put in front of them, and they were hidden from view.

So it was no big deal; we would have found them again in a day or two, but the ability to track them down to roughly the right room and make them beep meant that we were out of the door a minute later, with no worries lurking in the back of my mind. It won’t take many such absent-minded moments on my part — and these are distressingly and increasingly frequent! — to make the tags well worth the money.

Getting 3-Dimensional

Some quick thoughts after my first couple of days of owning a 3D printer.

Fireworks of the Future

I missed this at the time, but there was a lovely presentation put together for the Hogmanay New Year’s Celebrations in Edinburgh, using a swarm of drones carrying lights.

A short summary video is here:

but it is really worth watching the full presentation, which you can find here, with music and narration.

You don’t want to think too much about the fact that the effect was really only visible from one location, or that they weren’t allowed actually to film the Edinburgh scenes over the city so they had to do it in a remote bit of the Highlands and overlay it on images of the Edinburgh skyline… It’s still a lovely combination of software, hardware and poetry.

P.S. It turns out that there have been quite a few of these type of displays in recent months, if you search YouTube for ‘drone light show’. But most of them aren’t narrated by David Tennant 🙂

Activating Home Automations using NFC tags on iOS

Now that I have a shiny new iPhone, I’ve realised that I can finally start playing with NFC tags, and, in particular, they can do interesting things around the house by making them trigger actions in my Home Assistant system.

I do alread have various Zigbee buttons around the house, and in general these are more convenient, since you can just press them without needing a phone in your hand! There are a couple in the sitting room, for example, which toggle our ‘movie mode’. When movie mode is switched on, the lights in the hall, kitchen and sitting room dim to a low warm glow, any lights that reflect in the TV screen turn off completely, the temperature in the room is raised by a degree or two, and the TV & DVD player switch on. When movie mode is switched off, everything reverts to its previous state. I don’t want to have to pull out a phone to do this; it’s much easier to turn it on and off with a button, or to use voice. “Alexa, it’s movie time!”

A Xiaomi Zigbee button on the left; one of my NFC tags on the right. The NFC tag is an inch in diameter.

But if you don’t mind pulling out your phone, NFC tags have some key advantages: they’re small, weatherproof, require no battery and can do more things. You can also arrange that they do different things depending on who’s scanning them, so, for example, you could stick one beside your garage door; when you scan it, it unlocks your car, when your spouse scans it, it unlocks theirs, and when anyone else scans it, it does nothing (or perhaps causes your security camera to take a photo of them!)

Some tips

NFC tags each have a fixed unique ID, and for simple interactions you can just arrange that your phone does something when a particular ID is scanned.

But they can also be programmed with custom data using a protocol/format known as NDEF. There are standard ways of storing URLs, phone numbers, etc, much as you would with a QR code. So if you want a tag to take you to a web page, for example, without your phone needing to know anything about the tag in advance, this is a good way to do it.

If you want to experiment with this, then the Simply NFC app is a good place to start. Another good and completely free one is NFC TagWriter by NXP, but for the particular issue of reading things with an iPhone, I had more luck with Simply NFC. And a key thing to know if you’re using small tags is that the NFC reader is at the top of the back of your phone near the camera, and this needs to be within about a centimetre of the tag.

Recent iPhones will read a subset of these tag types in the background (i.e. without you having to run an app). As an example, I’ve just programmed a tag here with my email address (a mailto: link), and if I scan it, a notification pops up offering to take me to the mail app to send a message. I can do this with my iPhone at the home screen, or even the lock screen. More complex email variants, though, (for example, including an email subject line), don’t seem to work without running a special app.

Home Assistant – the simple way, and doing it better

Recent versions of the Home Assistant app know how to program NFC tags, and scan them, and associate them with Home Assistant actions. This is very cool, and gives you lots of information about who’s doing the scanning, etc.

But it has a problem on iOS: Apple doesn’t let an NFC tag perform an action on your phone without your confirmation. So instead of just pulling out your phone and tapping it on the tag, you also need to look for the resulting notification and confirm that you want the action to take place, which spoils the magic a bit. This isn’t an issue, I gather, on Android, but Apple are more cautious about doing things behind your back, especially, I guess, since an NFC tag could be hidden and yet still accidentally scannable.

However, there is one way to allow tags to perform actions on an iPhone without requiring your confirmation each time.

If you create an ‘automation’ on your iPhone using the Shortcuts app (not to be confused with a Home Assistant automation), you can choose to trigger this with an NFC tag.

You don’t need to program the tag: this just uses its ID, I think.

Now, an iPhone automation can do all sorts of things, including requesting a URL. And Home Assistant allows you to create webhooks which can trigger Home Assistant automations in response to a URL being requested.

Setting up a webhook

You can find information on how to create a Home Assistant webhook online, depending on whether you create your automations through the GUI or using YAML. Here’s my simple example called study_toggle, which toggles both ceiling lights in my study:

- alias: Toggle study lights
  trigger:
    - platform: webhook
      webhook_id: study_toggle
  action:
    - service: homeassistant.toggle
      entity_id: light.q_study_back
    - service: homeassistant.toggle
      entity_id: light.q_study_front

I can cause this automation to be run using the URL `/api/webhook/study_toggle’ on my Home Assistant server.

NOTE: It’s important to remember that webhooks don’t require authentication, so if your server is at all accessible to the outside world you should make sure you use more obscure URLs! Please don’t have one called http://homeassistant.me.org/api/webhook/open_garage!

Calling the webhook

OK, back to the iPhone. Now, your phone will need to make an HTTP POST request to that URL, but fortunately, this is easy to do. When adding an action to your automation, go into the ‘Web’ section and use ‘Get contents of URL’:

Then you can put in the URL and expand the ‘Show more’ section, which will let you change the HTTP method from GET to POST.

There’s no need to send any data in the request body, but you can add some JSON if you wish to make use of it in Home Assistant.

And that’s basically it! Make sure you turn off the ‘Ask Before Running’ option on the automation.

Now, the first time you scan the tag, it will still ask you for confirmation, but it’ll also give you the option not to be asked in future, at which point you can just tap the tag to run the action. Your phone does need to be unlocked.

Some hints

If you use Nabu Casa’s Home Assistant Cloud, they make it easy to get a long obscure URL which will link to your webhook and which will be accessible from anywhere. (If you set this up on your Mac, you’ll really want your ‘Universal Clipboard‘ enabled so you can copy on the Mac and paste on the phone!)

This is handy if you might want to put the tag somewhere away from your home, e.g. if it’s the last thing you scan before you leave the office to notify your spouse that you’re on the way. I’ve also heard of people sticking tags to their car dashboard which will open or close the garage door.

But if you’re only using the tag to control things when you’re actually at home, you’ll make it a lot more snappy if you keep everything on your local network, don’t go via lots of proxies, and you could even use an IP address to avoid a DNS lookup. So my actual tag to toggle my study lights calls a URL which is something like:

http://192.168.0.30:8123/api/webhook/study_toggle_x65fedwibble

and it’s pretty much instantaneous.

Where have you bin all my life?

I have a new car. It’s rather clever. As I’m driving along it can recognise nearby vehicles, people, cyclists, traffic cones…

But I was somewhat amused yesterday to discover that it can also recognise wheelie-bins.

(Click for a larger image.)

I’m trying to imagine what I would have thought, back in the days of my old rusting Minis and Hillman Imps, if you’d told me that one day my car would have a built-in ability to recognise and draw pictures of the waste-disposal facilities it was passing…

Christmas purchasing advice for geeks

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be beautiful, or believe to be useful, or can connect to Home Assistant .

If buying for others, you may need two of the above.

Mid-life Covid crisis?

I’m a middle-aged computer geek, but my iPhone is too old to run the NHS Track & Trace app. I think this is a limitation of the Bluetooth hardware, but my phone also can’t run a recent-enough version of the operating system.

This isn’t a criticism of the app; you need the right hardware to do something like this. But it makes me wonder about the proportion of the population that will actually be able to run it. Perhaps middle-aged computer geeks like me are actually the most likely to have elderly phones? I wonder whether anyone has done a graphic, plotting the age of users against the age of their smartphones? Probably a kind of 3D histogram?

On the one hand, younger users are probably more likely to be swayed by a desire for the latest gadget and by competition with their peers. But older users are, I guess, more likely to have the disposable income to upgrade. Mmm.

And now, of course, we have some interesting extra dimensions. The effectiveness of the app is highly dependent on its market penetration, and that penetration in different age-groups is going to be constrained by this distribution.

Is it particularly important that older people, who are more vulnerable to Covid, have this app? Well, probably not directly, because the app doesn’t protect you; it protects those who may come into contact with you in the future. On the other hand, perhaps older people are more likely to be in contact with other older people in the future, so it is important that they know when they shouldn’t be socialising.

There are lots of lovely opportunities for research, here, and for inventive data visualisation. Anyone got any funding available?

One thing is clear, though. The more of a social animal you are, of whatever age group, the more important it is that you run this. (That’s a serious point, so no snarky comments, please, about whether middle-aged computer geeks often fall into that category.)

Now, here’s a last thought. I have been considering that it may finally be approaching the time when I do upgrade my phone. But I’m likely to wait until Apple announces their next models, presumably sometime between now and Christmas. (This isn’t because I want the latest one, necessarily, but because the current top model will probably be demoted to a cheaper price bracket when its position is usurped.) I imagine many others may be in the same position, and large numbers of us will become track-and-traceable only after that point.

So…

Given that this same technology is being used around the world, how many lives might be dependent on the timing of the next Apple and Samsung product announcements?

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser