Saturday 24 February 2018

It's all about what you've done...

The podenco is a distinctive-looking dog: tall and slender with a pointed face and oversized ears. Imagine a thin greyhound with 10% bat DNA and you’re almost there. Now imagine four of them in the back of a small car. My car. Their enthusiastic faces and their wagging tails are framed in the rear-view mirror. This wasn’t part of the plan. It’s October 2017. My plan is to meet Suzannah for a cup of coffee and, almost inevitably, cake. But before we do that, her hounds need some exercise. We could walk the dogs around the block… or we could pop them in my car and take them into the fields. They love a run in the fields. Four pairs of doggy eyes gaze hopefully at me. How could I say no?

Our relationship hasn’t always been quite so laid back. Once we were unhappily married to each other. Today we’re neither. To be honest, Suzannah’s career focus has become something of an inspiration to me. I’m not sure if that’s because of everything or despite it. Anyway, the reason we’re meeting is because Dr Suzannah Stacey MRCVS is closing The Sussex Veterinary Acupuncture Referral Centre, which she’s been running for several years, she’s selling her home and she’s moving to Spain. There she’ll be helping to run the new Hope for Podencos Rescue Centre, which will be partially funded with the money from her house.

Podencos are remarkably tolerant creatures, as our cramped car journey proves. Unfortunately this doesn’t always help them. These dogs are sometimes deliberately underfed and neglected in Spain by owners who believe this improves their hunting ability. And if that doesn’t work, they’re likely to be abandoned or killed. With unwanted podencos often seen as unsuitable pets, it seems these elegant hounds need some human advocates.

Hence the rescue work and the associated charity. "When you get to the pearly gates, it’s all about what you’ve done", Suzannah tells me as I finally sit down with a piece of pear and chocolate cake. "It’s ‘have you made a difference?’" She’s definitely making a difference: already working with a small group of people who are rescuing dogs and – thanks to a friendly Spanish airline – transporting some to new homes in the UK.

Suzannah and her own rescued dogs – Ollie, Elsa, Eleanor and Lucy – drive to Spain in November. Her Instagram and Facebook posts show the new centre with dogs scampering around in the sun. I regularly check online, determined to visit before too long and maybe even to write the defining story of podenco rescue in the 21st century. She tells me she has all the background information I need.

A Facebook message informs me about Suzannah’s death just a few weeks after Christmas. Sudden, unexpected, tragic. A potential tragedy for the charity, too: with paperwork incomplete, they won’t receive the money needed to complete the purchase of the Spanish centre.

And then... well, not a miracle but certainly hope. Light in the darkness. An online campaign to save the centre in Suzannah’s memory manages to raise half the money needed in a few weeks. Although it’s still €60,000 short of its target, the deadline for payment has been pushed back. Raising the rest of the money feels achievable. It would be easy for me to look back at my last conversation with Suz as portentous. Maybe it was.

Monday 5 February 2018

February 2018 'gadget guru' technology for TRE Talk Radio Europe

Here's a reminder of the technology I mentioned in my February 2018 TRE Talk Radio Europe 'gadget guru' conversation:

Sonic Soak

Sonic Soak is a little cylindrical device that's made of stainless steel, just over four inches long. It’s attached with a wire to a separate controller that plugs into the mains.

You put whatever you’re cleaning into a tray or bucket with some water, pop the cylinder in there as well, turn it on and it creates ultrasonic waves that travel through the water. Fifty thousand vibrations per second create little bubbles that burst, and that’s what does the cleaning.

What can you clean? Clothes, especially those that are only suitable for hand washing, like silk or lace. (It’ll work with up to four litres of water and up to four pounds of clothes.) You can clean jewellery and silverware. You can clean children’s toys and baby’s bottles. You can even clean fruit and vegetables.

Not only does it use much less water than a conventional washing machine, it also uses less energy.

The device is being produced by a company in Los Angeles called Sonic Soak, which is launching the product via crowd-funding site IndieGoGo. Standard pricing is expected to be $250 plus shipping but there are special pre-launch offers.

Mycroft Mark II

Here’s another crowd-funded product. Mycroft is a voice-controlled assistant, like Amazon Echo and Google Home.

Unlike some other products, the company lets anyone look at its software so you can see exactly what happens. Does it save your voice recordings after you've talked to it? No, it doesn’t. Does it sell your information to advertisers? No, it doesn’t. Does it create its own targeted advertising? No, it doesn’t.

So what does it do?

Mycroft is a smart loudspeaker that’ll find answers when you talk to it, it’ll play music, it’ll take care of your diary and it has a little touch-controlled screen as well – which is nice if you ask it for things that work visually, like countdown timers or weather forecasts.

The unit sits just under eight inches tall. Inside there are six individual microphones to pick up your voice, it plays stereo with two-inch drivers putting out 10W of music, there’s a Bluetooth connection, a USB socket and a memory card slot. At the moment it just speaks English but developers are working on other European languages.

When it comes to talent, the joy of open software means other people can build skills for Mycroft. So as well as the usual weather and news stuff you might ask a smart loudspeaker, it can potentially control your lights, check your email, log into Facebook… if it’s online, there’s a good chance your Mycroft can talk to it.

Shipping is expected before the end of the year; pricing is $129 (around £90) plus shipping via Kickstarter.

Shell smartwatch

Shell is a smartwatch that can turn into a 4G smartphone and also has what the designers say is “the world’s first built-in manual charging solution”.

There are little wings that pop out the side of the watch. Squeeze them for a few minutes and they’ll give you a few more minutes of talk time on your watch.

Also in the watch is a 360-degree rotating camera that’ll take 12-megapixel photos. Battery life is up to five days of standby or five hours of talktime.

There’ll be three models to choose from: the Signature Model starts at $250 [approx. €200/£180], there’s also a lower-priced adaptor that’ll let people turn their existing smartwatch into a smartphone and a higher-priced version that includes a two-way walkie-talkie as well.

Shell is currently due to launch on IndieGoGo.

Ryze Tello drone

A Chinese company called Ryze has recently announced a £99 (€109) drone called the Tello, with help from drone specialists DJI and chip manufacturer Intel.

This drone literally fits into the palm of your hand. It weighs around 80g (including the rechargeable battery) and is 10cm long.

Does that affect its performance? Of course it does. There’s a maximum range of around 100 metres and a maximum flight time of 13 minutes before it needs recharging. In fact, it’s so small you won’t want to take it outdoors if there’s any kind of breeze at all.

Despite this, it carries a 5 megapixel camera that can also shoot 720p video and has built-in electronic image stabilisation. It also has a collision detection system, it can fly itself if you take your hands off the controls and it sends live video to your phone or tablet. You can also program it, which means it’s not just a toy but could encourage young engineers to learn coding.

Tello is due to go on sale from March 2018.