Archive for October, 2012

Let There Be Light

Posted on October 31st, 2012 in Technology | 2 Comments »

The website Kickstarter has been coming in for a bit of a, well, kicking recently.

On its face, it seems like a marvellous idea. Launched in 2009, it’s a crowd-sourcing platform, initially focused on creative or artistic enterprises but increasingly with a heavy gadget and especially iOS bias. In case you don’t know, here’s how it works.

I am an inventor, artist or other creative individual and I have thought of a thing. Ideally, I’ve reality-checked it, prototyped it, got it to the point where I can explain it, demonstrate it or pitch it. If I knew that there were 10,000 people out there who would all pay $50 to buy one, or come and see it, or download it, then I would know that the income would be there to justify a full production run, or staging it, or producing it. But I don’t have the funds right now to start that process, making me somewhat stuck.

Enter Kickstarter. You describe your project and set levels at which people can invest. Back the project for $50 and when it’s ready, you’ll get one, or a ticket, or a download. If I get enough people promising their money by the deadline, then credit cards are charged and I get the cash to start making my dream a reality (after Kickstarter gets its cut) and then pretty soon you should get what you’ve paid for. If not enough people invest, then nobody pays anything and I’ve done some pretty useful market-testing which may be enough to convince me to abandon the project.

I’ve got at least one really excellent product through Kickstarter – my Zooka Wireless Speaker bar which connects to my iOS device (see?) by Bluetooth and amplifies my music or video soundtracks. But I’ve also got carried away once-or-twice. “Wow, shooting 360 degree video on an iPhone – that is so cool. Here’s $40!” (Six months later) “Why has somebody sent me this useless piece of plastic in the post? What? Shooting 360 degree video on my iPhone? When would I ever want to do that?”

But that’s not the worst problem with Kickstarter, not the problem which has forced the site to substantially change its rules recently. With my Zooka, I plunked down my money and some months later, I received the speaker bar I wanted in the mail. Just like shopping on Amazon, if Amazon’s warehouse was on Mars.

But Kickstarter is not a shop. You aren’t buying a product, you are investing in an idea that might eventually turn into a product, but equally might all go up in smoke.

Kickstarter’s biggest success in terms of funding to date has probably been the Pebble. This smart watch with an e-ink display pairs with your iPhone, so with your phone in your pocket you can see who is calling you, get calendar alerts, see email messages and so on. It launched in April 2012 with a funding target of $100,000 and has actually raised over $10m, but despite an estimated ship-date of September 2012, so far no-one has actually got their $99 watch yet. And they may never.

So, in September, when I saw the Kickstarter campaign for the LIFX WiFi LED light bulb I was excited but also cautious. When we bought our new flat, we had all the wiring and lighting redone. We had hoped to get dimmable bulbs everywhere, but of course, we also often wanted one bulb operated by two switches and (apparently) you can’t have two dimmer switches operating one bulb or the fight each other and then your house burns down (or something). So we have several lights which are operated by one dimmer and one (or more) on-off switch. Workable, but not ideal.

The LIFX bulb solves this problem at a stroke. These LED bulbs can each be set at any brightness – and any colour!! – and you control them from your iPhone. Neat, huh? Of course, they’re expensive – around £50 each, and for our whole flat we’d probably need at least eight, maybe more.

So, after some discussion, I theorised as follows. Committing to buying eight bulbs now means that by the time they eventually show up (supposedly around March 2013), I may have less enthusiasm for the project, or have found another solution. In that time, various problems may or may not come up – the bulbs may be dim, or unreliable, or the software flaky or who knows what. WiFi LED light bulbs may end up being a “thing”, they may go mainstream or they may not. If they do, then in time the price will come down and the technology will improve. If not, I’ve bought a lemon.

Shortly after I decided not to invest, LIFX was one of a number of Kickstarter projects identified as being particularly likely to be problematic in articles such as this one from Reuters. Now Kickstarter has substantially changed the rules making it harder for pure “vapourware” products to swallow up large sums of other people’s money as they evaporate away.

Having mentally shelved the WiFi LED light bulb project, I was most startled when all over my favourite blogs and websites two days ago I saw an announcement from Philips that they had an essentially identical product called Hue which would be available exclusively through the Apple Store the next day.

The price is basically the same – £50 per bulb, £179 for the “starter kit” containing three bulbs and the “bridge” which connects them to your home WiFi network (the LIFX version doesn’t need the separate bridge which is neater and tidier, but may make initial configuration more fiddly). The bulbs are sleeker without the heat-dissipating fins which make the LIFX bulbs look a little odd, but they’re only available with Edison Screw E27 fittings, so if you have bayonet or downlight fittings, you need an adaptor. But crucially, you can go into the Apple Store and pick them up right now, today and put them in your home (but not buy them online, yet, for some reason). [UPDATE: You can now buy them on-line.]

So I stopped off at Ryness to buy some B22-E27 adaptors and then took myself to Regent Street, walking out of the Apple Store minutes later with a very handsomely presented box. Installation couldn’t have been much easier. Like WPS WiFi systems, the bridge has a physical button on it, so you connect it to your router with the cable provided and then push the button to connect it to your iPhone. Instantly I had full control over all three bulbs.

The software is a little clunky at present (LIFX’s software looks more fully-featured, but of course it doesn’t actually exist yet, so…). In particular, it is very focused on using colour from images to create lighting effects (or “scenes”) which is surely a niche application. Nonetheless, after a bit of messing around, I was able to create some suitable presets, such as a dim warm glow in the bedroom for going to sleep, or a nice bright clean light for reading in the living room. I was even able to create a single button to simultaneously dim the light in the TV room, and turn the light next-door off (for fear of it casting a reflection on the TV screen). Three bulbs is not of course enough, but as a proof-of-concept, I’m sold. We’ll give it a few more days to see how we get on and then stick a few more in.

If you turn a bulb off at the wall, you can’t then turn it back on again with the app – you’ve cut power to the WiFi electronics – but if you then turn it back on again, it returns with a standard warm glow and near maximum brightness, which means it’s always possible to override the tech if need be. A good solution.

Are they remotely worth the price though? Well, being LED bulbs they should last around 15 years. An old-fashioned incandescent light bulb, costing maybe £1.50, will last about six months. So you can easily spend £40 over a 15 year span. Of course, who knows if WiFi will even exist in 2027, but at least I’m not going to be chucking my £50 bulb in the bin this time next year. They’re also energy-efficient, drawing less than 9 watts of power, while creating the equivalent light of a 50w incandescent bulb.

For completeness, a Halogen bulb will last twice as long as an incandescent bulb but might cost twice as much. An LED bulb without the WiFi-ness will cost around £25-£30 and will presumably last as long as the Hue bulbs do.

So… what did I think of The Angels Take Manhattan?

Posted on October 1st, 2012 in Culture | No Comments »

Oh my god, they killed Rory.

You bastards!

There’s a lot to like about The Angels Take Manhattan. It looks fantastic, with director Nick Hurran making excellent use of the opportunity to go on location in the USA. The regulars are all on sparkling form – it’s a pleasure just to watch the three of them sitting in Central Park and teasing each other. The opening hard-boiled narration is atmospheric and captures the spirit of the novels and movies it’s referencing without being smug, and the story as a whole acts as a fine finale for the era of the Ponds and Amy in particular, with enough references to key episodes from the past two-and-a-half seasons to engage the regular viewer’s sentimentality without being key to understanding the episode.

That brings up what for me is the main point though – who is this really aimed at? On the one hand, clearly the regular viewer. The character of River Song blithely referring to the Doctor as her husband and Amy as her mother would be baffling for any casual or new watcher, and the emphasis of the whole story is very clearly on the departure of Amy and Rory – even to the point of just letting an Angel keep roaming around free, the Doctor is apparently entirely unbothered by the thought that the paradox they have created may not have been entirely successful in eradicating them. So clearly, this was made for the regular viewer then.

One the other hand, only a casual viewer would fail to spot that we’ve seen all of this before. The Weeping Angels first return in The Time of Angels brilliantly added to their powers and qualities while preserving their original Grandmother’s Footsteps appeal. This simply reprises scenes from Blink, when it isn’t ignoring established Angel lore altogether (like having Rory transmitted only in space for no reason at all except that it makes the plot work). Likewise the relationship between River and the Doctor is never explored in any new way at all, it’s just minor variations on themes played again and again by Steven Moffat in previous scripts – the Ming vase is simply a lesser version of the “Hello Sweetie” message in The Pandorica Opens, and the novel is just River Song’s diary rehashed for example.

There’s also a tendency in the episode for things to be true only because someone, usually the Doctor, says they are, rather than because they flow naturally from other story elements, or because they fit with things already established. Once you read something it becomes true. Really? Okay, I guess. The Doctor has healing hands now? Uh-huh. New York is messed up with time… things… so it’s hard to land a TARDIS there. Really? Didn’t seem to be an issue in The Chase, but I suppose. If you voluntarily go back in time, I can never come and visit you again. Huh?

When I overcome the aching familiarity of it all, then it does kind-of work – at least up to the moment of old Rory’s death. Honestly, has any character in fiction other than South Park’s Kenny McCormick died more frequently and less permanently? It’s impossible to take the sight of an emaciated Arthur Darvill seriously, given that he’s already been aged to death in a previous episode (as well as shot, turned into an Auton, desiccated to death, erased from history etc), and even Rory commenting on his propensity for resurrection can’t overcome the feeling of “here we go again”. Amy and Rory chucking themselves off the ledge is nicely done and is moving for as long as you ignore how fast-and-loose the show is now playing with the rules of the Angels (they basically obediently wait for you to finish being noble now, whether you blink or not) but tarnished slightly by the fact that we then get the same damned scene again in the graveyard. Only Rory Williams could exit the series dying three times in the same episode.

And yet, and yet, and yet… there is energy and power and pace to this episode. Moffat’s use of structure is as elegant as ever – “break mine” is if not a fresh melody then at least a nimble variation and Amy’s “afterword” is both a nifty idea and a nice bit of writing. And, following-on from the Doctor’s erasing of himself from history, maybe a bit more of a clean break with the past is what’s needed. The Ponds living a quiet life as a media couple in New York makes sense, and is a fitting departure for them – clearly the Doctor was never going to leave them alone. But what on Earth is the Doctor going to say to Brian…?

So, now I suppose I have to give this episode a star rating, which I find almost impossible. If I’d never seen Blink or the various other episodes plundered for ideas, I think I would have loved it. If I judge it on the basis that every episode this year is supposed to be a completely original “mini-movie” then clearly it falls very far short. If I didn’t truly believe that the Ponds were gone for good, I would have found the abandoning of the evil-Angels plot maddening, but equally if I hadn’t mourned Rory a dozen times already I would feel the loss of him and Amy more keenly.

It’s generally been quite a strong half-season, although nothing has absolutely hit it out of the park so far. We began with the impressive and vibrant but rather uneven Asylum of the Daleks followed by the rather clunky Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, redeemed by the thoughtful if not perfectly-realised A Town Called Mercy and the excellent, save for the hasty ending, The Power of Three. I think ultimately The Angels Take Manhattan is far more successful than Dinosaurs, but far too flawed to get the four-star treatment meted out to Asylum and so I think three-and-a-half stars is fair. But I want to watch it again, and I shall be interested to see what commenters make of this one. I’ve a feeling it may divide opinion.