The Watch of the Future, Today (Not Today)

Charging a watch from a phoneFirst they unplugged your phone from the wall, rolled it up and stuffed it in your pocket. Then they took your camera off the shelf, shaved it down to the thickness of a playing card and slid that inside the phone. They crammed in your Walkman too. Your address book and appointments diary. Pager, torch, pedometer, radio, dictaphone, bookshelf, TV, PC, satnav, even your wallet now. In short, just about any piece of equipment you might want to carry around in your pocket finds itself inexorably sucked into the single über-device we still, for want of decision, call a phone.

There is a good one-word explanation for this: Synergy. All these functions share at least some and often many requirements – a visual interface perhaps, network connectivity, speakers, data storage, computational power of course. The user benefits greatly by not having to carry multiple versions of essentially the same hardware. Imagine how we’d rattle if we did. Indeed it would simply never be worth the effort or expense of making most of these things pocket-sized. Make them a function of a universal gadget however, and the synergies flow.

The one that really clinches it though is power. It may seem counter-intuitive at first to put all our electric eggs in one battery basket so that when one goes flat they all go, but consider the alternative: If all these things needed charging separately there would be one or more plugged in pretty much all the time, completely undermining mobility. The greatest synergy of all is that you can charge everything at once. In many respects what we’re really carrying around is a fantastic little power source with some peripherals attached to it.

With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why smart watches have never really taken off. They cannot as yet replace the smartphone, and carrying both means you duplicate many functions while adding few. Yet they have to be charged as often as phones or more, doubling your inconvenience for very little palpable benefit. While you might embrace one enthusiastically as the badge of an early adopter, it won’t be so long before you find you forgot to charge it. The simple fact is, you don’t need a smartwatch.

I’m sure the Apple Watch will be more successful than any that has gone before, but that isn’t saying much. It may serve as a status symbol – at those prices, it is hard to imagine what else it could serve as – but in its current form it’s another niche product like Apple TV, not the next Apple game-changer. Here’s why:

To ever be more than an expensive optional accessory to the smartphone, the smartwatch has to turn the smartphone into its optional accessory.

Note the word optional. The market-redefining smartwatch will have to do all the indispensable communication things – texts, emails, social media updates and, last but still not least, voice calls. But unlike the current Apple offering, it needs to do it without an attached smartphone. Otherwise it’s really more of a burden than a blessing. The smartwatch will be successful only when it’s the one device you always want to bring with you. Your wrist is the natural place for that.

This will not mean the end for the unit we still call the phone. We’re unlikely to abandon such a convenient, multifunctional device while it still has irreducible advantages: A far larger screen interface, room for more and better sensors, more data, and of course much more energy. But we can reimagine the phone now. Specifically we can imagine it… without the phone.

If your watch can receive your calls and data, then the “phone” no longer has to be an always-on device. It can be more like a small tablet, used for apps, browsing, media and other roles that benefit hugely by the larger screen and greater processing power. But like a tablet it only needs to be powered up when you actually want to do those things, putting it in the class of devices with battery life measured not in hours but in days. And this introduces a very interesting possibility: it could act as a power bank to the watch. You’d worry a lot less about running out of juice on the road if your communication device could be topped up from its energy-rich companion. That’s not just a synergy, it’s symbiosis.

And this is not the only opportunity offered by taking the phone out of the phone. The limitations on the dimensions of your pocket device have always been dictated by its phone functions. Giants like the Galaxy Note 4 or iPhone 6 Plus push at the limits of what most people can comfortably use one-handed. Go much larger, and you cross the boundary of what fits into pockets. Shifting the communication function to the watch though means you no longer really need its companion to a be go-everywhere compromise. It can, literally and figuratively, be whatever your pocket allows. You could even have more than one of them – a slim one for tight pants and a big one for a bag, anything from a born-again flip phone to a workhorse device with a pen or keyboard. What the phone will evolve into is a set of optional extensions for your wristwatch. These may reproduce some of its functions and add others, but their essential purpose is to allow you to choose the best interface for the way you want to interact with it.

All this awaits the creation of a smartwatch that really is usable for voice calls and data, yet has battery life to last comfortably through the day. It’s a tall technological order, and the (first) Apple Watch certainly doesn’t achieve it. What it may achieve though – indeed, perhaps what only Apple can achieve – is an end to our culture’s resistance against talking into your wrist like a cartoon character. That alone would be a great stride toward the next mobile revolution.

Healing

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I finally went to a doctor, something I hadn’t done in years. Why not? In case I was ill of course. This is what stops people (OK, men) seeking help – the fear that we might need it. If you went there to get health booster shots or something we’d turn up every week. But to discover that you might really have a flaw, a weakness… Well, many men would sooner die. Many do.

I had a strange little spot on my leg. Every time it seemed to grow bigger – which was about every time I looked at it – I thought Oh no, should have seen a doctor before now. I’ve probably left it too late. I’m gonna die.

And then I’d ignore it again, for I am a manly man.

And thanks to getting myself a fantastic new phone for Christmas, I’d discovered another way I might be going. This is not a spin they put on it when they promote these health and fitness apps, is it? Get the new BitFit, find out you’re gonna die! My one has a doobry that can measure heartbeat. It tells you what is “normal”, and what is not. Mine was not.

Way not.

But by using my kneecap for leverage I finally got myself through a surgery door. And I’m so glad I did. The doc was nice and soon put my mind at rest. Yes that heart rate is quite elevated, she explained. But this means you’re badly unfit, not that It’s About To Blow. The thing on your leg you thought might be a death sentence for the last few years? That’s an old insect bite.

Well, she used words like “tumour”, “cyst” and “fibroid”, but thankfully it had nothing to do with cancer or cystic fibrosis. It was just a scary name for a weird kind of scar which, despite being in Latin, is perfectly harmless.

And she gave me anti-inflammatories to deflate the knee. As I suspected it was just a wrenching of the cruciate ligament, which in layman’s terms is the thing that keeps the lower end of your leg attached to the top end. I was very relieved to hear that surgery is not usually needed for this. Seriously, there are countless parts of my anatomy I would sooner have cut with sharp knives than my knees. But just in case, I’m on a waiting list to see a specialist too. And with the state of our medical service, there’s every chance that I’ll be completely healed before my appointment! Excellent.

Speaking of healing… It’s a week since the Charlie Hebdo massacre now. I wonder when the healing will begin there, or what form it will take. Nothing that’s happened since inspires much optimism, does it? We’re still going through the inflammatory reaction. A display of formation hypocrisy by the world’s leaders, evil and brainless “revenge” attacks on mosques, and of course promises of tough new laws right across Europe.

What, because the murderers took advantage of a loophole in the current anti-murder legislation? Do they think if a law is broken that means it wasn’t strong enough? It’s a kind of superstition, a fetishisation.

“Terrorism happened, we must make laws!”
“But terrorism is already illegal.”
“Well then we’ll make some other things illegal!”

And so there will be new powers of surveillance, new crimes of saying things that might lead to terrorism – the attack on public speech balanced by an attack on private speech. Perhaps it’s like the man with the hammer; for legislators, a problem is a thing that isn’t illegal yet.

The best response to terrorism is to do what you were going to do anyway.

How Do You Respond To Atrocity?

Paris_5And in particular, atrocity that touches you personally in some way. Carried out against other cartoonists, other satirists. Of course I am going to feel that more closely than the murder of say doctors or teachers or soldiers. It is only human.

But it would not be right to come to a different conclusion or demand a different response just because I feel it more personally. Maybe I shouldn’t even be writing this, considering that I haven’t stopped to lament any other atrocities recently. However there are more reasons to speak out here than the merely personal.

So what sane and just responses are available to us? Not many. In an understandable show of emotion, mourners are protesting the right to freedom of speech. But while a violent attack on any form of media is censorship, the right to free speech was never really the issue. When Charlie Hebdo decided to republish the “Danish cartoons”, there was no serious question of it being illegal. The question was whether it was justified or wise.

Nor do I think did the killers believe that they were going to defeat free speech. They must be as aware as anyone that their attack is likely to provoke more insults against Muhammad than ever before. The sort of person who wants to blame everything on Islam is going to do so twice as loudly now – to show how acts of terror cannot influence them in any way…

I’d say “And that’s exactly what the killers wanted”, except – I wonder if the real motivation here was even that sophisticated. To be honest, this feels more like an act of crude vengeance. They took offence on behalf of an idea and attempted to murder a magazine. Uncontrolled, almost infantile rage, without objective beyond the emotional release of smashing the face that laughed at you.

How do you react rationally to the irrational? You can’t. The only right response is to not react. Neither bend nor strike back. You cannot appease blind rage. You cannot avenge it either.

As any decision taken right now will be a bad one, we should take this time to contemplate. The West’s relationship with the Middle East is going seriously down the crapper. Recent history – decades now – seems like a litany of horrific acts from both directions, with absolutely no indication of it de-escalating. Does it have to be this way, or can we change our hearts and minds – on both sides?

Some creativity is badly needed here.

Song From A Sick Bed

First Pic_09Well Happy New Year all you walking people, with your legs. I’m sorry, perhaps my frustration shows. I did my knee on New Year’s, thanks to wild and frenzied dancing at Roisin Dubh. Someone’s frenzied dancing knocked a drink over, I ambled past and slipped on that.

It’s funny how you know, even before you hit the ground, that it’s injury time. “This,” you say to yourself as you start to descend, “will not end well.” Something to do with the angle. And the wrenching. And the popping.

It was painful for a while, but now it only looks painful. And oddly, something like Van Goch’s Irises. I’ve made good progress, though it did mean being confined to bed for a couple of days. OK, there are worse places to be confined. All other places. And I was very fortunate to have a friend staying, who could mop my brow and bring soup and generally indulge me. But then spoiling someone is actually very nurturing. If your GP gave you a medically unnecessary backrub now and again, maybe a scatter of gentle kisses, far fewer people would need alternative therapies.

Healing is not something a doctor does to your passive body like a kind of mechanic, but it’s not a thing the body can entirely do for itself either. Medicine is a social interaction, between your body and the community it belongs to. Those around you influence your health in countless ways, from pooling their resources to care for you, to simply making you feel cared about.

Few things are more conducive to health and happiness than the assurance that you matter to other people. Why does fake medicine work so often? Because it makes you feel like someone actually wants you to get better. That’s why it’s called the placebo effect, meaning “I’ll please”, not the “take this pill and go away now you walking talking irritation” effect.

Britain. What Is They? Who Are It?

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The final result of the Scottish Independence Referendum is still some hours off, so I will avail of this last chance to speculate. What will happen to Great Britain if Scotland really does leave?

Well nothing. Great Britain is the name of an island, not a country. Not even the proper name for it in fact – the more historical one is simply Britain.

So where did the “Great” come out of? I get the impression that a lot of British people vaguely think of it as a title their country was awarded somehow. At a country show, presumably. I have even heard people who should know better espouse the folk etymology that Britain refers to the combination of England and Wales, which became Great Britain with the addition of Scotland. That is of course completely made up.

Great Britain is simply the English for the French name for Britain – Grande Bretagne – and might be more accurately if prosaically rendered “Big Britain”.

Little Britain in this instance being Bretagne – or as we call it, Brittany – a province of France that was settled by people from Britain and where a language closely related to Welsh is still spoken today, now and again. Somewhat ironically perhaps, these British colonists were actually refugees, fleeing from the foreign invader we now know as the English.

Well partly, them – to be honest they were being invaded from Ireland too. After the Romans withdrew from Britain it was basically a warrior’s free-for-all.

So Britain was called Great Britain merely to avoid confusion with the French name for a Welsh colony. It’s like an irony layer cake. But French was the dominant language of much of Europe – and indeed, of Britain – for many centuries, so the “Great” stuck.

And still sticks today, and becomes ever more sticky. It is now kind of embarrassing, used when they can’t think of an idea for a cooking programme, or for politicians to clutch when they have reached the absolute nadir of rhetorical inspiration. It is high time a way was found to retire the term. And if Scotland does ever leave, that would be the moment. To refer to what remained as Great Britain after that would sound like sarcasm.

But what else could the remaining country be called? Well the answer is obvious, and I’m surprised it didn’t come up more in the debate. It would of course be the United Kingdom of Southern Britain and Northern Ireland.

I think it has a ring to it, no?

The Vultures Come Home To Roost

Chart of inequality levels around the world.
The gap between rich and poor has expanded nearly everywhere in the last few years, but nowhere more than here in Ireland. (Source: International Business Times)

Yesterday the UN voted to introduce a protective framework for insolvent nations. The motion was sponsored by Argentina, a bankrupt country currently under attack from ‘vulture funds‘ that bought portions of its debt and are now blocking any restructuring deal on the grounds that it might reduce expected profits.

The resolution was carried with 124 in favour and only eleven nations against. By and large these are home to powerful financial sectors that might lose out from restructuring poorer countries’ debts: the US, Germany, UK, Canada, Japan. There was one weird exception: Ireland.

Government will keep playing this down, but we are one of the most indebted nations on the planet. More than a quarter of our revenues go straight to servicing borrowings. Only Greece and Panama spend more. Only Greece, Portugal and Papua New Guinea have bigger debts as a proportion of their economies (source). And yet our alleged representative votes to protect not the national finances or the wealth and health of the citizen, but our corrupt and corrupting financial services sector.

Ladies and Gentlemen, do you see what we have become? A debtor nation, with a creditor leadership.

Chart showing the ever-increasing wealth of the richest few.
The global crash that brought never-ending austerity to the rest of has left the richest richer than ever before. (Source: International Business Times)

Scenes From The Meat Store

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Ooh. Something I’ve never seen before in the Polish section of the supermarket.

Some national delicacy that immigrants crave no doubt, on sale for probably ten times what it costs back home.

“Konserwa” means preserved or tinned I guess. But what the heck is “turystyczna”?

Turkey? Turtle? Turbines?

Probably turkey.

Hey maybe it says on the back

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That’s not turkey.

Music From The Doll’s House

Jenny Downie

I like this shot. Somehow the stage came out looking like a tiny doll’s house theatre.

The doll on it by the way is my friend Jenny, doing what I think may be her first ever public performance of her own composition, at the AMP end-of-year showcase gig in Kelly’s Bar.

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A New Look

This is just here to be decorative really - or prove that I do occasionally take walks

A redesign!

Well, more a redecoration. I happened on a nice-looking WordPress theme and tried it out. I like that it’s distinctly more modern in feel. I’m not totally gone on the current trend to areas of dead flat colour, but it’s healthy to experiment. Expect it to change again, as I try on themes like frocks.

And in the ripe plumpness of time I will give this place a theme of my own. The design itself is not the problem – I’m practically specialising in WordPress sites these days. But with these free hosted blogs they actually charge you to use your own code. I’m already paying them to use a custom URL, so it’s beginning to seem more sensible to host the thing myself. I’d learn more too, and have a lot more flexibility.

But first I have far more important websites to build. And as I am doing them for money now I will have to make a site about making sites – a pretty darn good one, needless to say. Plus my cartoon site is so technically outdated as to be an embarrassment – HTML 4.01. It doesn’t sound like it should be so different from the latest HTML 5, but between those two versions fifteen years elapsed! The practice of Web design has undergone a sea change – from static files to dynamic databases, crude table layouts to complex cascading style sheets. Using HTML 4.01 on my own site now is like being a cordon bleu chef while secretly living on pie and chips.

So I guess this is will stay a hosted WordPress blog for a while to come… But then there hasn’t exactly been a lot of posts in the last year, has there? Or for that matter, the year before. This is a good thing, in that it means I was doing something more useful than writing without being paid. As regular(!) readers will know, that thing was an MSc. That’s all done of course (bar, excruciatingly, my final grade), so perhaps I’ll be writing a bit more often now while I decide my next move.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 – Unpacked Event

S Pen Sensitivity Diagram

OK I’ll buy one.

Best to be clear about that from the start. After viewing today’s IFA Berlin presentation, I’m already planning to push substantial amounts of money onto the nice Korean people. So anything I say from here on cannot be regarded as truly neutral. Spectacles set to rose.

That being acknowledged, let me tell you why I want to spend excessive money on this excessive device.

The Galaxy Note has quite literally been my constant companion for the last three years. I bought the original one the day it went on sale in Ireland, used it in countless ways for both work and play. I’ve watched it grow year on year – the more refined Note II, the seriously powerful Note III – and with each new model, I have…

Stuck with the original. Though every iteration was more desirable than the last, it would not have been genuinely more useful. Not enough to justify starting another long and expensive contract anyway. The industry may love conspicuous consumers, but for most real customers a phone of this quality is a long-term investment.

And with the Note 4, the time may have come to begin again.

I don’t claim to be overwhelmed. Not a single one of the wilder rumours panned out. The Note 4 has a powerful 3GB of RAM, but not a revolutionary 4GB. Standard storage is still only 32GB instead of 64. Even the S4’s weatherproofing, considered almost a given by the rumour mill and greatly to be desired on such an expensive device, doesn’t seem to have materialised. On the other hand, we can be glad that some of the legends did not come to pass. Foldable AMOLED screens are an exciting technology with many possible applications, but would you really want to write on one? And though part of me would love to see the screen size creep up to 6” and beyond, it’s probably best to call a halt at 5.7”. A phone has to fit in pockets.

Rumours and wishful thinking aside, the Note 4 lives up to expectations. Specifications have been enhanced by respectable margins pretty much across the board, and there are a few highly significant improvements like high-speed charging and an ultra-low power mode that can keep it ticking over for a fortnight. Also the ghost of plasticky tackiness seems finally to be exorcised, with a slender metal rim and grippy leather-look back (now without the questionable faux stitching) lending it the air of a precision instrument like a classic SLR camera. At last the looks live up to its cost and quality.

If the Note 4 lacks anything it is one knock-down new feature to get excited about, but perhaps this is not surprising considering the nature of the beast. We’re long past the early days of the iPhone when each year’s model brought another feature that had obviously been missing. The Note already does about everything any other phone does, plus a lot of other things as well, all while pushing the form factor to its limits. Therefore Samsung tends to add its most experimental technology not to the flagship device itself, but to a special edition.

That bill is consummately filled this time by the Edge version with its cute auxiliary interface down one side. It’s an interesting and useful enhancement, but I’m not sure if this special-model strategy is paying off for Samsung. No doubt they worry that adding a controversial feature could raise costs while actually reducing the phone’s potential market, but I think if they’d been daring enough to put the edge display on the standard version it would have made the phone grab attention everywhere it was seen in use. Though it’s a cool extra, I can’t see myself paying extra for a version that has it. Indeed I’ll be a little surprised if any carrier even gives me the option.

The other way Samsung “adds” features of course is by offering new peripherals to integrate with. This time we see a bigger and better Gear watch, which I like but am neither rich nor ostentatious enough to buy. More excitingly, collaboration with Oculus brings a Gear VR headset – simply slot the Note 4 into a pair of goggles and you’re in another world. A technological tour de force by any standard and a sure headline-grabber, but not a reason for me to buy.

What does it for me is the solid improvements to the features I use regularly. More than once I’ve upgraded a phone basically to get a better camera, and with 16MP and real optical image stabilization, the Note 4’s is streets ahead of the original’s (already excellent) 8MP offering. And with a resolution breaking 500 pixels per inch and super AMOLED colour and contrast, its screen outclasses not just the fine precedent of the original, but every display available today.

Of most importance to me though are the enhancements to the Note’s core differentiation – the S Pen. This may mean little to anyone except artists, but there will now be interchangeable tips to adjust the pen-on-paper feel. Best of all the new pen will have 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity, the equal of professional graphics tablets. Do you really need that many levels to draw and annotate? No – but on the other hand you can never get too much sensitivity. The more nuance a pen is alive to, the more realistic the feel and the results.

I can’t see owners of the Note III rushing out to buy this, unless they are either blessed with excess wealth or cursed to own the most expensive phone available at any given moment. To them it would be only an incremental upgrade. For those of us who still have the Note or Note II however, decision time has come. And maybe it’s time for you too, if you haven’t yet sampled the delights of a device that, besides being everything a smartphone can be, is also a fine notebook and sketchpad.

The original Galaxy Note was a hard act to follow, so much so that it has taken three generations of enhancement to truly leave clear water. But a significantly better pen and camera make the Note 4 a significantly more useful tool.