Category Archives: Gadgets & Toys

The times, they are a changin’

This afternoon, having an old show tune running though my head, I turned to my new Amazon Echo.

“Alexa, play Some Enchanted Evening.”

Short pause while it explores Spotify. Flashing lights. Music about to start…

Some Enchanted Evening by Bob Dylan.”

Really?!! Bob Dylan?!! I was somewhat stunned. Partly because my image of the rebellious Dylan seemed about as far from ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ as I could imagine. And partly because there are many famous recordings of this song — by great singers from Frank Sinatra to José Carreras to Bing Crosby to Perry Como to Ray Charles to Barbra Streisand to The Temptations to Willie Nelson to Harry Connick Jr. (to name a few), a significant number of which have been Top-10 hits, but I had no idea Bob Dylan had recorded it.

Well, it turns out that ignorance was bliss.

I’m an admirer of Bob Dylan, but in general I think the music world would have benefitted if somebody had persuaded him, early on, that he should stick to writing his own songs, and get somebody else to actually sing them. I grant that others may disagree.

For him to sing other people’s songs, though, is an undeniable mistake, especially when it comes to the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein. I can imagine worse sounds that could emanate from my speakers, but they would probably have to involve Billy Bragg. If you doubt me, say “Alexa, play Some Enchanted Evening”, perhaps as a cruel joke when visiting the house of a Spotify subscriber.

More seriously, I can’t help wondering what the algorithm is behind the scenes that picks this version first, and can only be overridden by tacking something like ‘by José Carreras’ onto the end of your command. Is it because it’s the most recent? Because all those recordings that spent weeks in the upper reaches of the charts don’t appeal to Spotify’s target audience? Or – a more worrying thought – perhaps it’s selected personally for me! I guess I do have more Dylan in my collection than, say, Paul Robeson or Ray Charles. In which case, maybe it’s my own fault…

Car Talk

The Amazon Echo arrived in the UK a couple of days ago, and by combining some of my earlier work with John Wheeler’s excellent Flask-Ask framework I was able to make it talk to my electric car.

Also available on Vimeo here if preferred.

Software security and the new app platform

As regular readers will know, my car has a programming interface which, sadly, is not officially supported by BMW. Still, it lets me create some little apps to improve the daily experience of car ownership; not something I’ve really been able to do with any previous cars. We’ve come a long way from some of my earliest ones, where I spent most of my time straightening bent carburettor needles and replacing leaf springs!

car_lock_checkMy latest hack is a little script which runs periodically on one of my servers and checks whether the car has been stationary for more than 15 mins. If so, and the windows, sun roof or doors are open or unlocked, it sends a notification to my phone. This is partly for security reasons, but mostly because the British weather has been sending us hourly alternate bursts of sunroof-opening heat and torrential downpours! Of course, if I’m not near the car at the time, I can lock it remotely.

One of the many things I find appealing about the move to electric cars is that the actual mechanics become so much simpler. I no longer have an exhaust pipe, a clutch or gearbox, an oil sump or filter, head gaskets or piston rings. The motor isn’t much larger than a melon, and the batteries can be made in various shapes and sizes to fit the layout of the vehicle. In my case, I have a flat floor, with no propshaft tunnel or gear lever to get in the way. Reconfiguring such a design to be a van, a campervan, a flatbed truck, or whatever, is much less of a challenge now.

As the complexity of the mechanics goes down and the flexibility goes up, I think software, both inside and outside the car, is going to play an ever more important role in our experience of it.

The automotive industry has become interesting again, for the first time in many decades.

Let there be light


Playing with my Canon flashguns using PocketWizard FlexTT5 triggers and an AC3 on my Fuji X-Pro 1 and X-Pro 2. They work fine as long as you don’t need TTL metering. (I don’t.)


For those interested in the details…

20160320-11534604-600First, I set the flash mode on the camera to ‘Forced flash’ to make sure flash is always triggered even if the camera thinks there’s enough ambient light.

Next, even though the camera just sees this as a simple on/off flash trigger, I want the AC3 to be able to control the flash levels on the Speedlites, so all of the communications between those bits need to be in TTL mode to get that level of control. So the Speedlites are in TTL mode, and all the PocketWizards are also configured to use TTL communications.

Finally, I want to adjust the levels manually, so the switches on the AC3 are set to the ‘M’ position, and I can use the dials to turn the individual flash levels up and down from the camera, even if they’re buried inside a softbox, or somewhere similarly inaccessible.

It’s possible you may see one other glitch if you try this, but it’s easy to fix. The central connector pin on the bottom of a flashgun does the basic triggering. The other ones are for the surrounding control communication, and manufacturers handle this differently, so Fuji equipment will be expecting different things on these pins from Canon kit, or from PocketWizards designed to work with Canon kit. This can cause confusion – in fact, when I first tried this, I got strange messages on the X-Pro 2 screen about internal temperature warnings – others have seen this too, and it’s presumed to be a bug in the early firmware, since it happens instantly when the camera is switched on from cold. This morning, I had no problem, but it may be a good idea anyway to stop the different parts from trying to communicate when they don’t speak the same language.

20160320-12214801-600Some people just put tape over the extra pins. Perhaps somebody sells a hotshoe adapter that only connects the single pin. I had a really dumb PC-sync-to-hotshoe adapter in the bottom of my bag, so I put this between the PocketWizard and the camera, and plugged it into the PC-sync socket on the Fuji… and it all worked beautifully, as well as giving me a bit of extra space for reaching controls and things. (See the top picture above.) Who would have thought that this old connector from the 50s would be a good way to connect to sophisticated high-speed bi-directional radio communication systems?!

All in all, I’m very happy with this setup, and it gives me one less reason to carry my heavy Canon kit around.

What every traveller needs…

My next project will solve a fundamental design flaw which exists in many otherwise comfortable houses, hotels and B&Bs: something that causes fear and trembling first thing in the morning, however peaceful a night you may have had.

This world-changing invention will be a compact telescopic rod, with a handle at one end and a rubber-coated three-pronged tripod-like fork at the other. It will be lightweight and inexpensive. It could even be a Kickstarter project. It will have just one simple function.

It will allow you to turn on a shower, and get it up to temperature, without having to stand underneath it.

Remembrance of things past

I was doing a mini clear-out, and decided it was time to say farewell to some old friends. Do you remember the days when some electronic devices didn’t look like slabs of black glass?


For younger or less geeky readers, these are, from top-left, a Motorola RAZR (2004), a Nokia E61 (2005), a Blackberry 7100t (2004) and an Ericsson T39m (2001).

My iPhones have been the most useful devices I have ever owned (with the possible exception of my laptops), but each of the above was an iconic, reliable and, for the time, excellent gadget as well.

But, the world has changed.

Happy Memories


Where it all started, for me, at least. Spotted on a recent visit to the Whipple Museum.

Internet of comfort

I’ve discovered a genuine use for “Internet of Things” devices.

If you happened to twist your back in a funny way yesterday (as I did) with the result that you are now propped up in bed and rather immobile, it’s very handy to be able to turn on and off the music, adjust the heating and switch on the lights from your phone!

Normally, it’s much easier just to go and press the button on the wall, but not when doing so involves increased consumption of painkillers well in advance. 🙂

The next step?

If I had the money (which I don’t), don’t you think I should get one of these as my next bit of electrically-powered transport?


More info, including videos, here. I think a boathouse on the shores of Lake Como, with solar panels on the roof, don’t you?

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…

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser