Monday 28 December 2015

Come, They Trolled Him

November 2015: Digital Cinema Media (DCM), which arranges advertising for many of the UK's biggest cinemas (Cineworld, Odeon and Vue), decides not to take an ad from one potential client.

"Astonishing, disappointing and rather bewildering", says the client, which happens to be the Church of England. DCM says its policy is not to accept any political or religious advertising. "Some advertisements - unintentionally or otherwise - could cause offence to those of differing political persuasions, as well as to those of differing faiths and indeed of no faith." An appropriately sensitive decision or a threat to free speech?

Much press coverage follows.

December 2015: Advertising network and Christian communications business Premier approach DCM with a potential ad to promote their 'Christmas starts with Christ' campaign.

DCM declines again, for exactly the same reason. ”DCM has a long-standing policy of not accepting political or religious advertising in the cinemas we represent."

Press coverage follows. Once more.

Friday 11 December 2015

TRE Talk Radio Europe gadgets for December 2015

This month's 'gadget guru' chat with Dave Hodgson on TRE included some ideas for Christmas presents...

Gamevice mobile gaming controller

At the moment, certainly here in the UK, you can’t move without seeing an advertisement for some kind of Christmas game console deal. Either you’re spending a few hundred pounds on a Microsoft Xbox or you’re spending a few hundred pounds on a Sony PlayStation.

All the while you’re probably carrying around a powerful computer in your pocket: your smartphone.

Now, mobile gaming is very popular but for many people it’s not as good as a console because of the way you control the action. That’s where this company called Gamevice comes on the scene.

They’ve made a games controller for iPhone 6, 6 Plus, 6s and 6s Plus devices. This kind of thing has been done before but what’s particularly nice with this product is the way it looks – it effectively clips on either end of your phone, leaving the screen in the middle. So you don’t have a separate controller; it all becomes one. It fastens magnetically and has its own rechargeable battery so it won’t drain the iPhone too quickly.

A typical console controller will have a four-way pad on one side, separate buttons on the other, perhaps a pair of joysticks and some kind of trigger or firing control for each hand. This does the same.

It works with over 750 iPhone games including some of the biggest: Minecraft, Final Fantasy 7, Halo, FIFA16, Tomb Raider, Grand Theft Auto… the company makes an app that lets you check which games work with its controller.

Pricing is £79.95 (€109.95) for the iPhone version – there’s also one available for the iPad Mini – and you can order online or find it in Apple stores.

Polaroid Zip instant photo printer

Once upon a time, in the olden days, we’d put film in our cameras, take photos and then get the film developed – which usually took about a week if you were relying on someone else to do it.

Then came the Polaroid camera, which produced instant pictures on special film.

And then came digital cameras and smartphones, which made it easier to print photos at home.

But there’s a bit of a trend away from printers at home – most of the time you don’t need one – which almost seems a backwards step, particularly when more photos are being taken than ever before.

So along came the Polaroid Zip instant mobile printer earlier this year. It connects to your phone via Bluetooth (and if you’ve got NFC technology on your phone, you can connect simply by touching the two devices together).

The Zip printer itself is around 4 inches long: 120mm x 74mm x 23mm, weighing 186g and running off rechargeable batteries that’ll last for around 25 prints.

It costs £109.99 (around €150) and needs special photo paper, which works out at around 50p a go. This is Polaroid’s own paper called ZINK, which is short for zero ink. That means you don’t need to buy ink cartridges; like the old-fashioned film, the clever technology is in the paper. And what’s rather nice is you can peel off the back of the photos and they’ll stick to things. Photos are around 2 inches by 3 inches and, unlike a wet Polaroid, won’t smudge.

If you want something a little different, there’s a similar product on its way that actually clips to an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy smartphone - this is the Prynt case - but that’s probably not going to be available until January next year.

Vinturi wine aerator

With red wine, most people tend to agree that it’s best to decant it or at least allow it time to ‘breathe’ before you start drinking – because it improves the aroma and the taste.

Which is all very well, but it doesn’t really work if you decide you fancy a glass of wine or if someone turns up for dinner with a bottle that you want to start straight away.

That’s where you need your Vinturi aerator. It’s made of clear acrylic. You hold it over a glass, pour your wine through and it’s ready to drink.

The way it works – and you can hear it work – is that the wine pulls in air through little holes on the side of the device as it pours through. Unlike other devices, it doesn’t need batteries and it doesn’t need any waiting time, it simply uses basic physics.

I was given one of these for Christmas last year and I love it. I’m a bit embarrassed because they’ve been around for a few years but I’ve only just discovered them. Apparently it’s even dishwasher safe, although I just run it under the tap when I use it.

Pricing is usually somewhere around the £40 mark but here in the UK a few places have them on offer at the moment.

Perhaps best of all, it's a Christmas gadget that doesn’t need batteries!

Millennium Falcon Multi Tool

The new Star Wars film comes out next week - and I’ve talked before about the Star Wars BB8 droid, which is going to be at the top of a lot of people’s Christmas shopping lists.

But I’ve found something else that’s much more practical and costs a fraction of the price. It’s a multi-tool in the shape of the Millennium Falcon (which, if you don’t know, is flown by Han Solo in the film).

Anyway, this is a modern version of the old bicycle spanner, which was a flat piece of metal with various hexagonal holes in it.

This Millennium Falcon Multi Tool is made on the same principle – and it can do 11 different things (12, if you include 'looking like a tiny spaceship').

There’s a screwdriver, a bottle opener, a wire stripper and a ruler as well as various spanners and a couple of other tools.

It’s officially licensed, it measures around 13cm long and 8cm wide – and it’s £9.99. Keep it in your glovebox, in your handbag, in your briefcase, in your backpack – or in your cycle bag.

Once again, no batteries required.

Thursday 10 December 2015

Lewes 'North Street Quarter' development

The South Downs National Park Authority has just approved a planning application from Lewes District Council and Santon North Street to redevelop the North Street Industrial Estate, formerly the location of John Every's Phoenix Ironworks.

These are the closing words of Neville Harrison, who chaired the planning committee meeting:
I really did come into this room with an open mind. I think we've had a very good debate. Lewes is in the National Park and it fought to be in the National Park, so there's a huge responsibility for us - but I think it's opened... there are some very big opportunities that being in the National Park offers.
I have watched this application develop from something which clearly would not have got anywhere near what is required for the National Park, to something that clearly is getting very close. It's not perfect - I'm sure we'll all agree that - but there's such a lot of good things here that I am persuaded that I will vote in favour of the officer's recommendation.
I thought by now somebody would have quoted Thomas Paine - but I think I should quote Thomas Paine, because Thomas Paine said "a moderately good thing is not as good as it ought to be". Well, maybe this isn't as good as it ought to be, but on the other hand "the best can be the enemy of the good". That's Voltaire. So I think we've got something which is pretty good here.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Kapture review: the audio-recording wristband

The most memorable moments in life often go unrecorded. You don't have your camera in your hands. Your finger is still hovering over the 'pause' button on your audio recorder. Or you were simply too busy experiencing whatever was happening. It's all about the one that got away.

Just over two years ago, a new type of wearable device appeared on the horizon: Kapture, the audio-recording wristband. Kapture wasn't simply a recording watch, it was a life-logging time traveller. Instead of recording sound when you pressed a button, it would record constantly into a 'buffer' but would only save the recording when you tapped it. So it's the previous 60 seconds of sound you capture.

Each saved file would then be "downloaded to your smartphone where the duration can be shortened and you can name, tag, filter, and even share it". It connected via Bluetooth but only used the connection when it was actually saving and transferring a file. If your phone wasn't around, Kapture would save up to 25 clips in its own memory and could transfer them later.

This seemed the kind of thing I could use. Perfect for interviews when the interviewee starts talking before you've opened your notepad. Perfect for remembering the first cuckoo. Perfect for revisiting the best joke you ever told. Perfect for recalling directions and instructions you've been given.
And so, back in December 2013, shortly after Kapture's crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter ended, I pre-ordered one of the devices. Pricing was $99 plus $15 shipping to the UK; a total of $114.00 (around £75 at current exchange rates).

In March 2014, I received an update on the manufacturing and developing processes along with a warning that the anticipated delivery date had slipped to June. In June, the estimated delivery date was 'late summer/early fall'. The founders also promised that they wouldn't shave until they shipped the product and added "Remember, you won't be charged until we ship the product to you."
In July came an email that told me I'd be charged for the product on 1st August "as we begin ramping up for production". Delivery was expected in September. This became 'September/October' by the end of the month. I was indeed charged on 1st August - they didn't wait until shipping, despite the promise - and received an email a month later that talked about a shipment date in October. An October update mentioned production in December. November's update anticipated a 'control lot' in late December and the rest being produced in January 2015.

The delays continued: quality issues pushed shipments back to March 2015 for beta testers, with mass production starting in April. At least the founders could shave now. Those mass-produced devices reached the Kapture warehouse at the end of May, although they then needed CE certification before they could be distributed in Europe. Anyway, to cut a long story short, my Kapture was shipped at the end of October 2015 and arrived with £22.97 customs/handling to pay. (The equivalent of 20% VAT plus £8 for Royal Mail.)

Kapture device in box with optional orange strap
It's over a year later than originally anticipated but at least I've got it. The user interface has also been simplified since I placed my order; no longer do you need to choose between double-taps, triple-taps and quadruple-taps. It means that Bluetooth pairing is now much easier but there's no longer an option to turn the device off. Despite the simplification, I've had to work a few things out myself. For example, when you stop charging the Kapture, you need to give it a tap to start it recording again. That doesn't seem to be documented anywhere.

Still, let's talk about usage. Well, it works. Recording quality is acceptable, although most smartphones will do an equivalent or better job. Of course, you need to have the appropriate app switched on if you're using your phone. Horses for courses, and all that. I'm finding battery life is closer to 12 hours than the 24+ hours anticipated. What I've also learned is that particularly funny moments or particularly unusual sounds are, quite often, pretty unremarkable when I listen back to them. People talk over each other. Punchlines are mistimed. It doesn't take long for reminiscences to become rose-tinted.

Let's clear another thing up. Kapture clearly isn't a 'spy' device. Not only does the company insist that's not the aim, there's a blinking green LED every few seconds when the watch is buffering its audio. I reinforced this by choosing an optional bright orange casing. In addition, the moment you capture a clip - or should that be Kapture a Klip? - the device temporarily stops recording in order to store and transfer what's actually 59 seconds (not 60, but who's counting?) of audio. This means you lose out on the ability to record the following couple of minutes; not what a secret agent would want.
So, I unclip my Kapture from its magnetic charger, strap it to my wrist and give it a tap to start the buffering. When something remarkable happens, I tap it twice; it vibrates to confirm my instruction and saves a clip via my phone.

And that's where I have two particularly big issues.

Kapture device (worn by Mark Bridge)
Firstly, you can't really get clips off the device without sending them via Kapture's cloud service. Although they buffer on the device and then spend time on your phone before being uploaded, these temporary files are hidden away. Kapture lets you share your uploaded clips publicly or tag them as private - private ones are only accessible from your own phone, public ones are available to other users - but you still need to trust the security of Kapture's servers. Unlike uploading your photos to Facebook or Flickr, you don't have a copy of the original.

However, the biggest issue I have is that the current version of the app (running on my Android-powered HTC One M7) won't let me edit clips for length. I've got to leave all 59 seconds of audio there. When I try to cut anything out, the app crashes and renders the clip unplayable. Essentially, my unique recording is lost. Feedback from Kapture was to say "I'm sorry to hear you have lost a klip! Sadly it is very likely that it is un-recoverable." and to let me know that "We'll be reviewing a whole ton of app crashes and will be releasing a new version within the next couple weeks that should address those issues. Look forward to that!"

It's now more than a couple of weeks later, but I'm aware of how slowly time moves at Kapture HQ. So... I've got a Kapture that arrived around 18 months later than expected, that I paid for a year before it arrived, doesn't work properly and produces audio files that are out of my control. Do I like it?

Curiously, I do. Despite the delays, the disappointments and the failures, I'm still a fan. Knowing its weak points, I'm happy to stick with it. Would I have bought it if I knew in 2013 what I know now? Ask me in a few months, after the app's been updated and maybe there's been another User Interface tweak as well.

First published on, 1st December 2015.

Thursday 12 November 2015

My November gadgets for TRE Talk Radio Europe

I was back on the air this afternoon as TRE Talk Radio Europe's 'gadget guru'. Here's the technology I talked about this month:

BlackBerry Priv

Once upon a time, BlackBerry was virtually the only serious smartphone maker. If you wanted a phone that could receive email, you bought a Blackberry. How times have changed.

The newest BlackBerry phone is called the Priv, which is short for privacy, because taking care of your personal data and messages is one of the things BlackBerry has built its reputation on. But it has another worry these days: downloadable apps. Android is the most popular system out there, so – if you want loads of people to buy your phones – making an Android phone is a sensible choice. That’s what BlackBerry has done. The company has previously enabled Android apps to work on its own operating system but this is the first device that actually runs Android.

Let’s look at the specs: it has a proper, physical QWERTY keyboard that slides away when you don’t need it, a 5.4-inch Quad HD touch screen and an 18-megapixel camera. If you want more figures, it weighs 192g, it measures 147mm x 77.2mm x 9.4mm when closed and it runs a 1.8GHz 64-bit hexa-core processor, with power from a 3,410mAh battery.

SIM-free (i.e. no contract) price is £559, which equates to just under €800.

Tag Heuer smartwatch

Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer has been making watches for over 150 years – and now they’ve announced their first smartwatch. In fact, they’re pretty much the first of the luxury Swiss watchmakers to produce a proper smartwatch. Unfortunately, despite the company’s heritage, you can’t really call this one a Swiss watch because it’s full of electronics that aren’t made in Switzerland.

Anyway, it’s called the Tag Connected, it’s made of titanium and is available with a choice of seven rubber straps. It runs the Android Wear operating system, which is good news for anyone with an Android phone. It’ll do basic things with an iPhone, like letting you know when messages arrive, but if you want to connect it with other apps, you’ll need an Android phone.

The design is very much classic Tag Heuer and at first glance could easily be mistaken for a sports chronograph. One of the interesting things here is that Tag is offering a guaranteed trade-in after two years if you decide that you’d prefer a mechanical watch instead. You’ll need to make another payment – actually it’s around as much as you’ve already paid for the smartwatch – but arguably it’s a win-win for serious watch buyers.

There’s been a great deal of thought about the display, which looks a lot like an analogue chronograph. But because it’s digital, you can change it, with a choice of exclusive Tag faces that aren’t available to other Android watches. And, unlike some smartwatches, it always shows you the time because the screen never completely switches off (unless the battery runs out). Despite that, it’s expected to run for 25 hours before needing to be recharged. Pricing is £1,100 (around €1,600).

Ion rechargeable belt

If you use your phone a lot – or if the battery is getting old – it won’t always last all day. Some people carry a charger with them. Some people carry a spare battery or a rechargeable battery pack with them. But soon you won’t need to do either – because you’ll be able to wear the battery pack. That’s the idea behind the Ion Belt, which is currently raising funds on It looks pretty much like a standard belt but it includes a 3000mAh battery, which is enough to completely recharge most smartphones. So, before you put the belt on, you charge it up through a socket inside the buckle. When your phone dies, there’s a USB socket on the end of the belt – all you need to do is attach your standard charging cable. It’s even got LED indicators to show how much charge is left. Assuming all goes well, it’ll be available from June next year; if you’re prepared to take the chance of ordering before production starts, you can get it for $99 (£65 plus taxes & shipping) at the moment.

Noke Bluetooth padlock

The product name is pronounced No Key, which is a big clue here. This claims to be the world's first Bluetooth padlock. The theory means there’s nothing to lose: no keys to forget, no combinations to remember. It simply unlocks when your phone – iPhone or Android – is nearby, even if it's in your pocket. You can let friends and family access it but you still stay in control – you can restrict the time they access it, if you want – and you can see a record of who’s been locking and unlocking it. You can even see where it’s been taken.

Noke is powered by a battery that's expected to last for a year. If your smartphone battery dies, you can unlock Noke with a sequence of clicks: a bit like a combination lock but by pressing the hasp. And if the lock’s battery dies – which the app will warn you about, so it shouldn’t – you can attach another battery from the outside to jump-start it. UK pricing is £59.99 (€85).

Christmas is coming, the cups are getting red...

Starbucks. In the last few years I've heard some bad things about the coffee retailing giant. Purveyors of high-calorie beverages. Tax avoiders. There was even a suggestion their logo was similar to that of a satanic order. Even so, describing them as being in league with the devil might seem hyperbolic. Yet it seems some Christians would disagree.

The beginning of this story is pretty straightforward. As Christmas approaches, Starbucks introduces red takeaway cups. The red cups also mark the introduction of limited-availability festive drinks, including eggnog and gingerbread flavours.

Every year, Starbucks changes the design of its cups. We've seen carol-singers, snowflakes, Christmas trees, snowmen - and this year, simply plain red. That has enraged some Christian activists, who claim the company is involved in 'Christian Culture Cleansing' and is avoiding saying 'Merry Christmas' to customers.

Even US presidential candidate Donald Trump has weighed in, offering "Maybe we should boycott Starbucks? I don't know. Seriously, I don't care." as well as "If I become president, we're all going to be saying Merry Christmas again, that I can tell you."

Except... well, Starbucks is still talking about Christmas. It's produced a special Christmas Blend of coffee. It's selling Christmas gifts. And pretty much all the previous on-cup imagery can be traced back to non-Christian traditions, so removing it was arguably most offensive to pagans rather than any religion that had 'borrowed' it.

Voices of reason include Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, who pointed out "I don't think it's like Starbucks had the Christmas crib on their cups to begin with", and actor/producer Candace Cameron Bure, who said "A Santa, a snowflake, some holly, a polar bear, some jingle bells or plain red cup don’t define Christmas for me as a Christian".

A religious boycott prompted by takeaway coffee? That sounds like a storm in a... no, too easy.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Derren Brown: "one of the big secrets of happiness is from the Stoics"

Derren Brown on the BBC Radio 2 Steve Wright show, 3rd November 2015
"In real life, we're fed so much the idea nowadays that you should control things: in order to be happy you should sort of set your goals, believe in yourself enough and you can make stuff happen to conform to what you want. And I think, actually, in real life, one of the big secrets of happiness is from the Stoics. And Stoicism was a popular philosophy for 500 years before Christianity took over, and one of their main axioms is that you don't try and control things that are out of your control. You're only in control of your thoughts and your actions; everything else in life, if it's not under your control - what other people do and what they think and what they think of you - if you just let that go and decide that it's fine and stop trying to control it, you naturally remove a whole load of anxiety and frustration from your life."

Friday 30 October 2015

A Creep of Tortoises in Ringmer

Recently I've been researching Ringmer's renowned reptilian resident - Timothy the tortoise - for Viva Lewes magazine... and discovered a few interesting facts that I couldn't squeeze into the final article.

Firstly, to avoid any confusion, Ringmer's Timothy tortoise is not the tortoise who died in 2004 and was dubbed 'Britain's oldest pet', despite some similarities. As well as having the same name, both tortoises were originally assumed to be male but were later shown to be female. In addition, it's likely that both were some kind of ship's pet before they reached England.

Our local Timothy was born in the 18th century - possibly around 1740 - by Henry Snooke, who brought it home to Ringmer. Mr Snooke gave the tortoise to his wife, Rebecca, who was the aunt of naturalist Gilbert White. When Rebecca died, Gilbert took her tortoise home with him to Hampshire, writing about the tortoise in his book 'The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne'.

The other Timothy, who ended his days in Devon, was born in the mid-19th century and has his own well-documented biography called simply 'Timothy the Tortoise'.

Henry and Rebecca are apparently buried together in Ringmer's parish church. Timothy, meanwhile, rests at the Natural History Museum in London.

My biggest surprise was discovering that Timothy may not have been the first tortoise in Ringmer. In 1774, Gilbert White wrote to his brother John, describing the differences between Timothy and other types of tortoise:
There are tortoises whose shells are always open behind and before "apertura testae anterior," as he says himself, "pro capite et brachiis; posterior pro cauda et femoribus." These apertures are supported, as it were, by pillars on each side and can never be closed. Of such construction is the shell of Mrs Snooke's present living tortoise, Timothy. But then there are tortoises whose under shell has a cardo, an hinge, about the middle of their bellies, commanding one lid or flap forward, and one lid backward (like the double lidded snuff-boxes) which when shut conceal the head and legs and tail of the reptile entirely, and keep out all annoyances. Two such (very small they were) Mrs Snooke had formerly; and the shells lie still in her room over the hall.
Although we can't be certain these tiny tortoises were born before Timothy, it's certainly possible that Timothy was bought as a replacement or even a companion for these creatures.

But it's Timothy that's remembered locally, with his likeness appearing in a number of places, including the village sign.

Recommended reading: 
Timothy the Tortoise: Rory Knight Bruce 
The Portrait of a Tortoise: Sylvia Townsend Warner 
Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile: Verlyn Klinkenborg

NB: The collective noun for a group of tortoises is a 'creep', according to most sources.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Portrait photography with Katie Vandyck

In this interview (first broadcast on Rocket FM Lewes), portrait photographer Katie Vandyck of explains why a photo session is like therapy, why faces look good in black-and-white, and how her pictures reflect her personal philosophy.

On taking portraits:
"I think it turns out to be a form of therapy because you're having to be genuinely interested in them. It doesn't work if you're not genuinely interested. And you pay them really close attention to get them to relax, to get them to be themselves. I think it's very rare for people to have very, very intense concentration on them except for during therapy. And they're paying you, as a photographer, to do this, so they don't feel bad talking about themselves. It's very pleasant for them to be focused in on, in a benificent way."

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Every person you interview...

"Every person you interview becomes a kind of mentor of the moment." 
American journalist Gay Talese, interviewed in Esquire by Cal Fussman.

Monday 19 October 2015

Talking Culture on Rocket FM Lewes

Here are a few links from today's 'Talking Culture' show on Rocket FM Lewes, in which I interviewed gallery curator Sarah O'Kane, artist Keith Pettit, novelist Sarah Jasmon and writer Beth Miller:

Thursday 15 October 2015

TRE Talk Radio Europe 'gadget guru' conversation for October 2015

Here's the technology I was talking about in my conversation with Dave Hodgson on TRE Talk Radio Europe this afternoon:

Microsoft Surface Book

This is a curious thing. We're all used to Microsoft making the Windows operating system that's then installed on a computer made by someone else: perhaps a Dell laptop, a Sony laptop, an Acer laptop, a Lenovo laptop...

But then a few years ago Microsoft started producing its own tablet computer - a rival to the iPad, you might say. It's called the Microsoft Surface, it has an optional keyboard and it's attracted quite a following.

Now Microsoft has taken another unexpected step: it's producing its own laptop.

The Surface Book has a touch-sensitive screen - 13.5 inches across - and a proper keyboard as well. It runs on either an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor and manages up to 12 hours of battery life. The screen has a hinge that'll let you adjust it to almost any angle and can even be removed if you want.

It's very much a competitor with Apple’s MacBook Air, their high-spec laptop, and it's priced accordingly. It goes on sale in the USA with pricing from $1499 [around £975 / €1300] for the 128GB version. There's no word of European availability but I imagine it'll be on its way before long.

Google Chromecast Audio

This product promises to 'cast your favourite tunes from your phone straight to your speakers'.

It's a development of Google's video-based Chromecast, which plugs into your TV and lets you watch YouTube videos via your phone.

Chromecast Audio does the same kind of thing for music. It's a little disc-shaped device that connects to the mains and can plug into most Hi-Fi systems, powered loudspeakers and amplifiers. It comes with a 3.5mm connection although it'll also work with RCA connectors and optical inputs if you have the right lead.

And then you can listen to music from your phone. Not just your Android phone but your iPhone as well. And this isn't just music that you've downloaded to your phone: it's streaming services like Google Play Music, Deezer, Spotify and TuneIn.

The whole thing costs £30 and I'd very much like one in my Christmas stocking.

Boogie Dice

These are self-rolling dice. They are programmable and sound activated - so if you clap your hands, click your fingers or tap the table, they will start rolling.

The standard 'Boogie Dice' die can be used in any dice-based game, but the manufacturer has also designed a special card game to take advantage of all the programmable dice features.

The technology is fairly obvious when you think about it. Each Boogie Dice is about an inch across; inside is a microprocessor, a motor to make the die vibrate, a microphone to detect noise, a rechargeable battery and some LEDs to make the die light up. A full battery charge gives you about 30 minutes of non-stop rolling or 500 separate rolls.

To recharge, you put the die on a little charging pad, which takes around 40 minutes. And because they're programmable, you can change things like the rolling time and how long the die waits before it switches itself off.

These are available via Kickstarter; pricing is from $22 for one die with a charger (plus $10 shipping) [around £21 / €28] or from $45 if you want the Bots Battleground game, which is a bit like robot Top Trumps.


There's a fair amount of controversy around this laser razor. It was raising money on crowd-funding site Kickstarter, where it was aiming to get $160,000 and ended up attracting pledges of more than $4 million. But Kickstarter suspended the campaign because the company didn't have a decent prototype (and some people have used much stronger words about the company). However, that's not stopped Skarp Technologies from moving their campaign onto rival crowd-funding site Indiegogo, where the rules are slightly different - and where things appear to be running smoothly.

Smoothly is another key word here, because Skarp is powered by a tiny laser that claims to cut through hair without irritating or damaging your skin. So not only is it theoretically safer than a traditional blade, there's also hardly any of the waste involved. You may not even need water.

The company behind it hopes to have products available from March next year, pointing out that the people involved are experienced at working with cosmetic and medical products. Of course, that doesn't guarantee this one will be equally successful... but such is the nature of new products.

If you fancy taking a chance, pre-orders are currently $159 for a limited period, plus another $10 for shipping [around £110 / €150].

Monday 12 October 2015

Just give me the long number from your bank card

My mother makes notes. Not always, just when there's something to tell me. Her latest contains a name (Natalie) and a telephone number (0800 0119290), along with the words 'stop all calls' and 'pay with Visa, give a password'. Apparently Natalie had phoned and had offered to help protect mum against unwanted sales calls. The irony of Natalie herself being an unwanted sales call was apparently never addressed.

"Just give me the long number from your card" was one of Natalie's preferred phrases, mum tells me. Given that mum treats her bank card as being more precious than the money it offers access to, that was never going to happen. Besides, she's already registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS), which is (a) a free service and (b) the official opt-out list for avoiding unsolicited sales or marketing calls.

So what exactly was Natalie offering? Well, it seems she was promising to sign mum up to some kind of minimum-term contract deal. For a recurring fee, Nuisance Protect Ltd would register mum with the Telephone Preference Service and the Mail Preference Service (which is free if you do it yourself) and would contact companies that ignore the TPS or MPS regulations (although there was no explanation of how they'd find contact details for these errant organisations).

And - according to their website - "if a company contacts you and asks you for banking information over the phone", they will "search government websites and do as much research as possible on these companies to ensure that you are not going to fall victim to fraud and they are safe and reputable to be dealing with".

So I imagine it would tell me that Nuisance Protect Limited was incorporated on 18th June 2014 and the registered office appears to be a terraced house at 29 Nimbus Close, Littlehampton, BN17 6RX. It would also point out that Nuisance Protect had the status of 'dormant' when it published its last set of accounts (30th June 2015), with company director Mark Strange noting the business had assets of just £1. I don't think mum's going to help them increase that figure.

Tuesday 29 September 2015

After a difficult life...

I've been doing some research into Rebecca Snooke. Rebecca was the aunt of 18th-century naturalist Gilbert White. Notably, her tortoise - Timothy - was passed to him after she died. It's this tortoise that features heavily in Gilbert's book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne... and it's also this tortoise that features on the village sign for Ringmer.

Rebecca's husband Henry is buried below St Mary's church in Ringmer. There's a black marble tablet in the aisle, bearing a Latin inscription:
Post vitam difficilem
Hic quiescit
Henricus Snooke Armr.
de Ringmer
Ob: 19 Jan: 1763
Æt: 69.
["After a difficult life here rests Henry Snooke esquire..."]

Rebecca and Henry Snooke had both lived in Delves House (which is now the location of a sheltered housing development alongside the churchyard).

Apparently Henry's widow Rebecca - aunt of naturalist Gilbert White - was later buried with her husband, although there's currently no visible indication of her grave.

However, page 298 of The Topographer (volume 4) from 1791 tells us "in the same grave is buried Rebecca Snooke, widdow of Hy Snooke, Esq, who died March 8th, 1780, Aged 86. She was the 2d Daughter Of the Revd Gilbert White, of Selborne, Hants."

Incidentally, Timothy's final resting place is the Natural History Museum in London.

Tuesday 22 September 2015

September's TRE Talk Radio Europe 'gadget guru' conversation

I was back on TRE this afternoon with my regular radio round-up of the latest gadgets. Here's what caught my eye:

iPad Pro
On the 9th September, Apple announced a couple of new iPhones and also a new iPad. The phones have some smart new features but it’s the iPad Pro that is literally the big deal. It has a 12.9-inch display and runs on Apple’s new 64-bit A9X chip, which apparently gives it the same power as most laptops. It can also be used with an optional stylus called the Apple Pencil, which lets you draw on the screen, and with a separate keyboard. There are stereo loudspeakers and a battery that’ll run for up to ten hours. It can even multitask, with two apps running side by side. Despite all this, it’s just 6.9 millimetres deep and weighs only 713 grams. European pricing hasn't been confirmed; US prices for the Pro start at $799 for the 32GB WiFi-only model, which converts to roughly £520/€715.

Xtreamer WinKey
This is a tiny computer that's not much bigger than a memory stick: 11cm long x 4cm wide. It’s got an HDMI plug on the end, so it can plug straight into most modern TVs, and also has a mains adaptor. What’s notable here is that the Xtreamer WinKey runs Windows 10 - the very latest version of Windows - on a quad-core Intel processor, with WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity. All you need to add is a keyboard or a mouse, which will cost you a few pounds and connects via Bluetooth (although there is a USB socket as well). It has 32GB of built-in memory, which isn’t loads but is enough for most everyday stuff, and it does have an expansion slot. Price is €149 (£110); shipping is due to start from 1st October.

Sphero BB-8 Droid
If you’ve seen a trailer for the new Star Wars film, you’ll have seen a little white and orange robot with a round body. When it moves, the body rolls like a football but its head always stays on top. You might think it’s all done with computers – I did when I first saw it – but it turns out that it’s a physical device… and you can buy your own toy version. Better still, you can control it from your mobile phone. Sphero, the company behind this, have been making remote-controlled round robots for a few years, so the technology is pretty sound. The mobile app gives you two virtual control sticks, rather like a conventional radio control. One is for motion and direction, the other helps you make sure it’s facing the right way. There’s also basic voice control and what the manufacturers describe as a ‘personality’, which sounds like it won’t always do what you ask. I've seen it on sale in the UK at £129.99 (€180).

These are described as ‘Ear-Free Headphones’ and look like a hairband that you wear horizontally rather than vertically (the band goes round the back of your head and the arms go above your ears). They work by bone conduction, so instead of playing sounds through your outer ear, they conduct vibrations through your skull. Effectively they send sounds straight to your inner ear, which means there’s less distraction. It’s not a new idea but what’s nice here is that the company has included a microphone and Bluetooth connectivity, so you can listen to music from your phone without wires and you can even answer phone calls. It works from rechargeable batteries that plus into a standard USB socket on a computer, running for up to 6 hours of music playback. You control the thing from touch sensors on either side. At the moment it’s raising funds on crowd-funding site Kickstarter, with a pre-launch price of $149 (£100/€135). They’re expected to roll off the production line in April 2016.

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Start small and make it good

Sugru is mouldable glue – ‘21st Century Duct Tape’, said Forbes – created by Jane ni Dhulchaointigh. Here she is at the 2015 conference, talking about the advice she was given when “we’d basically spent all the investment money and I’d put four years of my life into mixing those chewing gum things” but they still hadn’t had a major commercial breakthrough. The customer base was enthusiastic yet very small. “There was a point, kind of Christmas 2008, where I thought… ‘Have I done all of this for nothing? Is it not going to amount to anything?’ Because we had no money.”
I went for a cup of tea with a friend – another designer – and she basically gave me the best advice that I’ve ever had. She just said "Look Jane, I know you want it to be big and I know you want it to be in every kitchen drawer and I know you want to affect millions of people… but you can’t just do it like that. You’ve got 100 people that are sending you pictures. Focus on them. Get those, get another hundred, you get them, you’ll get a thousand, if you get them, you’ll get another thousand." And for me, that was just like – yeah – I mean, it totally changed my mind. And I was like "Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m just going to make it small. And I’m going to make it brilliant."

[This post is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0]

Tuesday 18 August 2015

My TRE 'gadget guru' gadgets for August 2015

I've just spent an entertaining few minutes talking to Allan Tee on Talk Radio Europe about an assortment of gadgets.

Today’s choices were:

Motorola X Style mobile phone

This is effectively the Mark III Moto X flagship smartphone, available as the ‘Pure’ in the USA and the ‘Style’ elsewhere. It has a 5.7-inch HD screen and will run on the Android operating system. Motorola says over three-quarters of the front of the phone is screen, which means there’s not much wasted space around the edges. It’s equipped with a 1.8GHz hexa-core processor, 3GB of RAM, a 3,000mAh battery, and up to 64GB of built-in storage which can also be expanded.

There are a couple of really noteworthy things: not only does it have a battery that’s theoretically capable of lasting all day but it comes with a fast charger that will give it around 10 hours of battery life from just 15 minutes of charge. And it has a 21-megapixel camera sensor, which the company says will make it ‘best in class’. It’s also customisable: if you order the phone online you can choose from a range of colours and materials.

Pricing without a connection ('SIM-free') is expected to be £359 in the UK, that’s around €500. Availability is expected early September.

BedJet v2 air-conditioning for your bed

This isn’t just about cooling you down or warming you up; it’s about helping you sleep better.

Apparently one of the problems with getting a good night’s sleep is that your core body temperature changes during the night. If you wake up in the middle of the night to kick the covers off, you’re less likely to feel refreshed when you get up in the morning.

So, when you get your BedJet, you tell it your gender, your age and a little bit about your body type – it then monitors the temperature in bed and adjusts it throughout the night. It can replace your electric blanket in the winter and saves you getting out of bed to change the thermostat in the room or to open the windows.

Essentially it’s a box that lives under (or next to) your bed and quietly blows air through your bedding. It’s got a remote control but the really clever stuff happens when you connect it to your mobile phone or tablet.

BedJet v2 is expected to sell at $500 (£320 / €450) but it’s currently on offer for much less if you order via crowd-funding site The company says it should ship in time for Christmas this year.

Touchjet Wave, turning a TV into a touchscreen computer

This is another piece of add-on technology to enhance what you’ve already got.

There’s a little arm that clips on top of your TV, a bit like a desk lamp, and a little box that plugs into an HDMI socket on the back. Connect it to the mains and you’re good to go.

When you switch it on, it powers up with the Android operating system and can link up with your home WiFi, like a giant tablet computer.

That little clip-on arm has an infrared eye to see where you touch the screen, so it’ll respond to your touch like a tablet, which means you can listen to music, download films, play games, do your social networking and browse the internet.

The company reckons they’ll ship the Wave from March 2016, with pricing at the moment from $149 if you include shipping (around £100 / €135).

Hoverkraft, a construction game that hovers

This was announced at the 2014 New York Toy Fair but has taken a while to make it into the UK.

The basic idea is similar to Jenga, where you try to build a tower of wooden blocks, or even building a castle from a pack of playing cards.

This new game uses magnets to make the playing board hover. The overall base is around 10 inches square, with a separate playing area that hovers above it and is tethered in place. You then need to stack 3D plastic pieces on the hovering board, a bit like the computer game Tetris, but in real life.

Price is £29.99 (€43).

Friday 7 August 2015

Trusting TripAdvisor

Online customer reviews are useful, but it's a system that may sometimes mislead. Positive and negative votes can be influenced by social media campaigns and an assortment of irrelevant factors, which is why I approach The Shed in Wadebridge with caution. At the time I visit it's number 3 in the list of restaurants in Wadebridge, yet its tiny size makes it an unlikely candidate in any foodie directory.

First impressions are... how on earth can they cook anything in there? Yes, the venue's small - a few tables outside and some seats indoors - but the kitchen area itself is barely larger than a wardrobe. Service is friendly and helpful, demonstrating a genuine desire to please. We've arrived at lunchtime - walked in from Padstow, since you ask - and are feeling pretty hungry, which means we order our food and drinks quickly but carefully.

Our coffee arrives. It's good. Really good. These days most cafes are capable of producing a decent cappuccino. At The Shed, the coffee blend and the construction of our cappuccinos is exceptional.

Our food is equally impressive. Imaginative, well presented and packed with flavour. I've chosen oak-smoked kippers on toast with pink grapefruit (£5.95). The citrus cuts through the oil of the fish; simple, good-looking and very tasty. My wife's frittata is accompanied by a colourful 'superfood' salad: she's impressed with taste, quantity and appearance. A visiting customer suggests that Gordon Ramsay may want to add The Shed's 'Beached Benedict' - an updated Eggs Benedict with samphire replacing the bacon - to his menu. It certainly wouldn't seem out of place. Perhaps he'll become a regular visitor, having recently bought a holiday home a few miles away.

Ultimately, The Shed is somewhere I wish was my local cafe. And somewhere I'll make a point of returning to when I'm next on holiday in Cornwall. Thank you, TripAdvisor reviewers.

Wednesday 5 August 2015

Truro in the rain

The last time we came to Truro, it was a rainy day in the middle of our holiday and we were accompanied by a grumpy teenager. We visited the cathedral, had lunch at a little cafe and ended up in Marks & Spencer, where the teenager asked me to buy him five pairs of socks. I think that was his highlight. Everyone was pretty miserable.

Today, we have no teenager. He's grown up. But I'm slightly grumpy before we've even started, mainly because I've been reading a city guide that's peppered with greengrocers' apostrophes [yes, many greengrocers] and poorly-explained historical references. It's also raining. Again.

Time to leave the frustrating guide behind. We've come to the city because we want to give Truro a second chance. Theoretically a city - with stunning architecture, shops, cafes and galleries - is a good place to be on holiday when a sunny coastal walk is out of the question.

In reality, it's not. Not in the rain. Our first stop, the cathedral cafe, is struggling to cope with the number of visitors. We escape to 108 Coffee House, where the quality of the coffee, the friendly service and the honest food deliver a welcome respite from the grim weather. Later we drop into the Arts Cafe, which seems similarly cheering (although we didn't stop to eat). Lemon Street provides an attractive Georgian view. But overall it's a bit too practical, especially on a rainy Wednesday. If you want mystery and magic, stories of fishing and mermaids, druids and dragons, Cornwall is the right place. If you need to go shopping, Truro is undoubtedly a sensible destination. But if you're looking for an escape from damp reality, this isn't where you want to be. Sorry, Truro, maybe when the sun's out. Third time lucky?

Sunday 2 August 2015

The Prawn Supremacy

Prawn on the Lawn has recently appeared on Duke Street in Padstow, replacing the long-established Margot's Bistro. Much like the original PotL fish restaurant in London, Padstow's new seafood bar is also a fishmonger's shop, which means you could easily buy the main ingredients to re-create their dishes at home. Except... well, there'd be something missing. Because there's magic in the air here. The food is joyful. Simple in theory but, with apologies for the cliché, much more than the sum of its parts. We chose tapas-style dishes: seared tuna, razor clams, scallops and the open prawn sandwich that gives the place its name. All delightful.

But this isn't a review of Prawn on the Lawn. I wasn't making notes, mainly because I was enjoying the experience too much. Margot's was a Padstow landmark for over 20 years. Based on my visit, I'd say Prawn on the Lawn is guaranteed an equally long tenure here.

Wednesday 22 July 2015

TRE 'gadget guru' technology for July 2015

The technology I talked about in July as ‘gadget guru’ for Talk Radio Europe is…

New Apple iPod

It seems that the iPhone and the iPad haven’t killed off the iPod. Apple has announced a new version of its iPod touch, with a new range of colours, improved cameras and the Apple A8 chip, which makes it more powerful and better at tracking your movement.

The 16GB model costs £159 or €229, depending on where you’re buying it.

Marshall London mobile phone

Amplifier maker Marshall – well, the part of the company that makes headphones – has said it’s going to make an Android-powered phone as well.

It’ll be called the Marshall London and, as you might expect, has a focus on music. There are two speakers on the front and there’s a separate music processor inside, which should improve the sound quality. It’s also capable of playing more types of music file than other devices. There’s a button on the top that takes you straight to your music and it’s got two headphone sockets to let you listen with a friend. In addition it has a decent stereo microphone in case you fancy doing your own recording.

Other specs include a 4.7-inch display, an 8 megapixel camera and 1.2GHz processor. It’s being made by a Swedish company called Zound, which has licensed the Marshall brand – and that explains why it’s being launched in Sweden.

Pricing is expected to be around €540 SIM-free when it goes on sale.

Coolpeds Briefcase Electric Scooter

When you’re tired and you’ve had a long flight, there can be nothing worse than dragging your suitcase through the airport – and then dragging it through the streets as well.

Now there’s an American company that reckons it might have solved the problem. Coolpeds makes electric scooters – and they’ve now taken that technology and built it into a suitcase. So instead of having a case with wheels that you drag behind you with the handle; a little platform folds down for you to stand on and you use the handle for steering.

It weighs about 7.9kg including the case, will run for up to 10km on one charge and can reach a speed of up to 20kph.

The price is currently $599 (around €550 or £385) – but is being promoted for less on crowd-funding site


This is described as a Military Grade Fish Finder Sonar that fits in your pocket. It’s about the size of a cricket ball – it’s round with a point sticking out of it – and it uses Bluetooth technology to connect to your phone, that’s the same wireless system as a hands free headset.

When it’s in the water it sends out high frequencies to work out the depth of the water, the temperature of the water, the contours of the bottom of the lake or wherever you’re fishing, if there’s any weed below the surface – and, most importantly, the location of any fish. All this then appears on the screen of your phone.

So – you switch on your phone, switch on the FishFinder, attach it to your fishing rod and cast it into the water. And because there’s GPS built in as well, you can tell it to remember your favourite spots.

It runs for up to 8 hours on rechargeable batteries and costs £129 (around €185)

Thursday 16 July 2015

Looking for a connection

I could well be breathing the same air as my great-grandparents. I've walked the streets of Tenterden, where they once lived, and may even be enjoying the same type of lunch my great-grandfather regularly ate. (It's a cheese-and-pickle roll, accompanied by a half-pint of Kentish bitter, since you ask.) In fact, this space between the bar and the fireplace in the William Caxton pub might have been his favourite spot. The pub was called the Black Horse back in 1891, when great-grandfather was listed as 'innkeeper' on a census form, but I'm sure he'd recognise the place.

St Mildred's church, TenterdenResearching your relatives is pretty easy if you're only looking back at the past hundred years or so. Thanks to online records, I've found the pub where great-granddad Richard once lived. (It's also where my grandfather lived for a while, perhaps unsurprisingly.) However, innkeeping wasn't a career that Richard followed for long. Although he was at the Black Horse in 1891, ten years later he appears to have followed his father's footsteps into the building and decorating trade.

Sometimes research can make you feel closer to your relatives. In this case, despite my proximity to the historic Richard Bridge, I'm not feeling any emotional attachment. Time to move on. I've already had a wander round the graveyard of St Mildred's church without any success, so I'm going to visit Cranbrook Road cemetery. It opened in 1887 and is at the same end of town as the pub, which fills me with some hope.

Much to my surprise, I discover a double-width plot that contains Richard, his wife Kate and two of their children. Four deaths in ten years. And a few rows back, I discover a headstone for Richard's parents, my great-great-grandmother and great-great-grandfather. A passer-by tells me that Ashford Borough Council are very good at providing information about the location of burial plots. On this occasion, I didn't need anyone else's help. I reckon that's a family trait... and maybe even the lineal connection I'm looking for.