Thursday, May 29, 2014

Read this, do what they ask

Women in tech just want to work on what they love, a manifesto :

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Travel essentials

I don’t travel as much as I used to.  I used to think of distances purely in terms of battery life.  At one point, I was regularly turning up at the airport with only a vague idea of where I was going; my secretary had booked the trip, arranged all the details and even checked me in.  All I needed to do was drop off my luggage at the right desk.  The routine was pretty slick.  I knew what to wear and carry to get through the airport as quickly as possible and automatically fell into the zombie-shuffling demeanour that makes airports (barely) bearable.  I had a kit of essential items so I didn’t need to think about what to pack.

I don’t travel so much now, but I’ve been thinking about what I’d put in my travel kit these days, since there’s so much cooler stuff around these days.  Any other suggestions?

  • Chargeable power supply for my various devices.  There are a lot of these on the market.  I’d be happy with one that could handle 2 or 3 USB devices at a time and charge from both mains abd USB.
  • Universal power adaptors.
  • Travel power strip.  I find that most hotels have only one (if any) socket at each side of the bed.  I usually want my phone (for listening to audiobooks) and my kindle next to the bed and night is usually the only convenient time to charge them.  I usually end up with my laptop on the floor next to the bed with USB cables trailing all over.  This greatly annoys me.  I want a small, light power strip which has maybe a couple of UK mains sockets and 2 or 3 USB sockets.  It would be great if this had a battery in it so it could double as item 1.
  • Pocket wireless router.  Some hotels have only a wired broadband connection.  A pocket router could convert it to wifi.  It could also be used as a wifi extender and to foil those hotels that charge for wifi per device.  It would save having to use my laptop as an access point.
  • Phone.  Mine is a Galaxy Note II, which I love.
  • Tablet. Mine, like my phone, is a Galaxy Note.  I use it mostly for taking handwritten notes, which I do every day.
  • Laptop. Size, weight and battery life are obviously the most important things here.  Mine is a really small and light Toshiba one which fits in my hand luggage and gets about 8 hours of battery life.
  • USB stick.
  • Pens, plural.  I always have my Fisher Space Pen with me anyway and would use this to fill in my landing card.  But I’d carry at least one more to lend to other passengers.
  • E-book reader.  Mine’s a Kindle Paperwhite, which I much prefer to the Fire.
  • 2 or 3 retractable USB cables.  Non-retractable ones have a life of their own and no matter how I coil them, they seem to unravel when I’m taking my electronics out of the bag at airport security and get in the way when I’m re-packing.
  • Eye drops
  • Moisturiser
  • Deodorant
  • Mouthwash
  • Clear plastic case for the above four items.
  • Small case for carrying painkillers.
  • Cheap, foldable, disposable reading glasses.
  • Several NFC tags in bracelet and necklace form.  I have several profiles set up for travel ranging from simple things like turning airplane mode on and off to more complicated experimental stuff. Thinking up and implementing new uses for NFC tags is also a good and relaxing way to fill up long flights and layovers.
  • A set of lockpicks, just because I like carrying them around. Wonder if I’d be allowed to take them on the plane?
  • Headphones.  I just use a standard pair of earbuds on the plane.  My usual headphones are these bluetooth ones, which are really good ( but they might be too bulky to carry in my hand luggage.  If I have a long layover, however, I’ll find a way to fit them in.
  • Comfortable, non-metallic clothing, usually tracksuit bottoms, trainers and T shirt,  No jacket. No watch. Wallet, coins, keys in my bag. NFC tags go through airport metal detectors with no problems. I try to do without my walking stick when I travel. It gets in the way and people in airports and stations seem to view it as an invitation to walk in front of me or barge past me.  I don’t know why.  I usually regret not taking it when I don’t and taking it when I do.
  • Nuts, seeds and other snackables.  Anything to avoid airline food if I can.  The food itself is less of a problem than eating it in such a cramped space surrounded by other slobbering passengers.
  • I usually carry all this stuff in a messenger bag,  I use this hand-dyed tentacle one:  I’ve tried bags with lots of pockets, but I find them more annoying than useful.  The messenger bag has pockets for my phone, travel documents and headphones and that’s enough for me.  I might consider something like this though, so I can stow my bag and have my phone, kindle and headphones to hand:

So that’s my ideal travel kit.  What do you carry when you travel?  What things don’t but should exist to make travel less horrible?

When I was your age

I’ve been thinking lately about how times have changed. It’s not just that I’m getting old, it’s also that we’re living in the twenty first fucking century, a fact that still occasionally freaks me out.  But there’s a particular thing I’ve been trying to tease out and it’s something like this:

It was worse when technology didn’t do what we wanted it to, but it was more exciting.

Anyone remember the Psion Organiser 2? Man oh man that was an incredible machine. It came almost out of nowhere and was a machine made for geeks like me.  I was head over heels in love the moment I saw it.  It represented, above all, potential. It didn’t do much out of the box, but you could program it.  You could just go ahead and make it do what you wanted.  It already looked like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I doubt I was the first person to write a HHG2G program for it.  In fact, the database I wrote to run the HHG2G was the first software I ever sold, aged about 15.  The second was a word processor I wrote for the same machine a few months later.  It turns out that I didn’t make enough money to retire, but it paid my rent for a couple of months.  But the point was that this was an exciting machine; a thing that was obviously going to transform everyone’s lives.  And its successors did that. A couple of decades later, everyone had smartphones.  


I love my smartphone.  Technically I could live without it but practically I’m not sure I’d want to.  My phone does everything I dreamed of making my Psion 2 (and later 2LX, various versions of 3, 5 and 7) do right out of the box.  And considerably more. And it’s enormously upgradable; there are apps for everything.  The more esoteric and bewildering your requirements, the more likely there is to be an app that does exactly it.

I tend to be a glass full kind of person (I’ve only got half a glass of water, but I’ve got half a glass of this awesome air too) but in the case of portable computers I can’t help but feel that more is sometimes less.  The software on phones is so awesome that it’s easy to ignore the things that annoy us.  In the old days, we’d just have written software that did exactly what we wanted.  These days, that’s a much bigger investment of time, knowledge and skill.  So despite the fact that my phone does more than I dreamed was possible in 1986 and is totally awesome, I pine a little for the days when I had to make my handheld devices do what I wanted them to.

That’s why I’m taking some time off to make phones do what I want them to and help other people make their phones do whatever it is they want them to do, too.  I’m building a mobile platform that integrates media, social networking and contextual aspects such as where we are and what we’re doing, based on the principle of doing awesome things while remaining in control of our privacy.  People will be able to use this platform to build apps that integrate their phone more closely into their everyday lives.  I’ll be building some apps to demonstrate the platform.  The first will be an app to support the organisation and management of civil protests, particularly in places where such protests are dangerous.  I’ll be using low-cost and throw-away wearable computing such as NFC bracelets and necklaces as contextual switches for apps, doing different things depending on whatever it is your phone thinks you’re doing at the time. I’ll be kickstarting projects to improve the platform and build other apps, probably on or around the general topic of disobedience. 

Fun, isn’t it?  Let’s make use of the vast potential of our phones and online services.  Let’s pick up our phones every day and think “you know what, I’m going to change the world a little bit.” Let’s protest. Let’s crowdsource ideas then crowdfund them.  Let’s build apps on the spur of the moment, over the course of maybe a weekend, even if it’s to do something we only want to do once.  Let’s make our phones things we can make stuff with.  For the hell of it.  For the fun of it.  Let’s make awesome technology exciting again.